Free Speech

A judgement of the Supreme Court of the United States on Wednesday protected the rights of the Westboro Baptist Church to continue its nauseous activities. For the past twenty years Westboro has regularly picketed military funerals with “God Hate Fags” signs.

Those Cigarettes Will Kill You

Give them their due the members of Westboro Baptist Church do not discriminate in their discrimination. They are of the opinion that God hates a great many people. Seemingly He has it in for the entire Roman Catholic Church because of priestly abuse.

Westboro also pickets synagogues because God apparently also hates Jews, pity about His Son. According to Fred Phelps the pastor of the church “Homosexuals and Jews dominated Nazi Germany … The Jews now wander the earth despised, smitten with moral and spiritual blindness by a divine judicial stroke … And God has smitten Jews with a certain unique madness … Jews, thus perverted, out of all proportion to their numbers energise the militant sodomite agenda… Jews are the real Nazis.” We are clearly not dealing with Mensa material here.

In 2006, in the incident that led to the court case, Westboro members travelled all the way from Topeka, Kansas to Maryland solely in order to picket the funeral of Matthew Snyder, a Marine Corps Lance Corporal killed in Iraq. We must admit that this 71 member church, mostly the Phelps family, are sincerely dedicated in their vitriol. Their annual travel budget for the purposes of picketing amounts to more than $250,000.

In accordance with local law the Westboro pickets stood on public land 1,000 feet from the church where Snyder’s funeral was held. They displayed signs stating: “Thank God for dead soldiers,” Thank God for IEDs,” “FAGS doom nations” (falsely implying that Snyder was homosexual), “God hates you,” “America is doomed,” “Priests rape boys,” and “You are going to hell.”

Snyder’s father sued the church in the state court for intentional infliction of emotional distress, and a jury held Westboro liable, with damages subsequently reduced to $5 million. At some point free speech becomes criminal harassment.

Yesterday, in an 8–1 decision, a Supreme Court held that as the protesters were speaking to a matter of public concern, had engaged in no violence, and were following the instructions of local law-enforcement officers, the church is not liable to pay damages to the grieving father.

Supreme Court Justice John G Roberts Jr, who wrote the judgment, endorsed the First Amendment’s protection of even distasteful expression. Roberts called “startling and dangerous” the government’s argument that the value of certain categories of speech should be weighed against their societal costs when protecting free speech.

The one dissenting voice in the decision was that of Supreme Court Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr who argued, “Our profound national commitment to free and open debate is not a license for the vicious verbal assault that occurred in this case.”

The activities of the Westboro Baptist Church are repellent and are rejected by most decent people. They are especially abhorrent to Christians as this abuse was perpetrated in the name of Christ.

Most have little idea of the complexities of American constitutional law. We are, however, confronted with general questions. Was such a judgement necessary in order to protect free speech with regard to public issues? Must we view this case as a choice between: a) abandon free speech or b) accept the most hateful speech imaginable directed at the most innocent parties at their moment of greatest vulnerability?

When does free speech becomes hate speech? Is it when individuals are offended, or perhaps when they are distressed, or maybe when they are brought to tears? Perhaps it is when a group are held in expressed disregard liable to expose them to rejection by others? Could it be when the speech offends against the held morality of the majority of the people constituting the state?

The fundamental questions is: Do we have free speech when its freedoms are only applied to those with whom we agree?

In this case, much as I dislike saying so, I think that the Supreme Court got it right. I personally find the activities of British totalitarian organisations such as the BNP and Hizb-ut-Tahir abhorrent. In order to freely express my abhorrence of such groups and those who share their philosophy I feel morally obliged to allow them freedom to express their squalid beliefs.

In the 19th century Thomas Chalmers the great Scottish evangelical leader took the unpopular step of arguing for Catholic emancipation. He did this on the grounds of strengthening the institutional church. When challenged about dangerous errors in Catholicism he replied that if he had the Bible in his hand error would always be defeated.

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