Todd Vogts

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Phelps protesters to face supreme court

A WBC church member holds an inflammatory sign at a protest the church held (via Travis Heying at kansas.com).

The Westboro Baptist Church of Topeka, led by pastor Fred Phelps and other members, has been in the news a lot lately for their in-your-face protests decreeing their hate for anyone outside of their own church by desecrating the American flag and holding signs that depict gay sex and carry other hateful messages such as “God Hates Fags” and “Thank God For 9/11″ and “Thank God For Dead Soldiers” and “Fag Vets,” usually at funerals of dead soldiers “to spread their belief that U.S. deaths in Afghanistan and Iraq are punishment for the nation’s tolerance of homosexuality,” the Associated Press reported at NPR.org.

(I’ve written about them before — here and here among other times — if you want to read more about my thoughts of them.)

Now the church and its members are in the news again, and they are preparing for a court date with the highest court in the land — the United State Supreme Court.

The case is Snyder v. Phelps, 09-751, and it will be heard in October as one of three cases being heard this fall (“The others involve whether parents can sue drug makers when their children suffer serious side effects from vaccine and NASA’s background checks on contract employees,” according to an AP report).

According to Associated Press writer Mark Sherman, “The court agreed [March 8] to consider whether the protesters’ message, no matter how provocative or upsetting, is protected by the First Amendment or limited by the competing privacy and religious rights of the mourners.”

This Supreme Court appearance stems from an October 2007 decision of a federal jury in Baltimore that awarded Albert Snyder $5 million after he sued WBC $10.9 million in damages for invasion of privacy and emotional distress following a funeral-side protest of his son, Marine Lance Cpl. Matthew Snyder of Westminster, Md., who was killed in Iraq in 2006, according to Wichita Eagle writer Ron Sylvester’s report.

The federal jury’s decision was overturned  by the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals because they said “the protests were protected under the First Amendment.”

“Speech that is called hateful, or speech that is unpopular, or speech with which you strongly disagree, may still be protected speech,” the court wrote, as reported by The Eagle.

So this begs the question: should the First Amendment’s freedom of speech rights protect what the Phelpses do?

First, as a journalist, I am a very big proponent of the First Amendment because it is important, and it carries a lot of power, such as the freedom of speech and the freedom of the press. Any steps to curb someone’s free speech rights shouldn’t be doled out lightly. Everyone has the right to say whatever they please, but there are limits, as Topeka lawyer Pedro Irigonegaray said in the Eagle report.

“There are clearly limits to free speech, such as pornography and yelling ‘fire’ in a crowded theater when there is no fire,” Irigonegaray said in the article. “The repulsive nature of the Phelpses’ language has been characterized as hate speech. Whether or not damages can flow from that will be a major question for this court . . . But when the speech becomes so vicious, you also have to look at how it affects the people at which it is directed, and the effects it has of them . . . I am an advocate for the First Amendment, having lived in a dictatorship [his family immigrated to the U.S. from Cuba when he was 13] where what people say could get them thrown into prison. But there also needs to be limits placed on the practices that are cutting deeper and deeper in our society of mean-spirited exchanges, whether it be by the Phelpses or other political interests.”

I believe the message the Phelpses and WBC spew are hate speech. They should be stopped. It would be like a group of white people standing at ethnic events and scream racial slurs. It wouldn’t be tolerated, and this shouldn’t be either.

However, as I say that, I believe the court needs to make clear that ruling against WBC shouldn’t chill the First Amendment. People should still be able to protest and assemble peaceably, choose whatever religion they see fit and feel free to speak their minds. Such rights should not encroach upon the rights of others, though, and that is what the Phelpses do when they protest at funerals.

The Phelpses have more than crossed a line. They have leaped over it, and now they should be reprimanded for it. It is time for a stand to be made against WBC in order to maintain the legitimacy of the First Amendment and the freedom of speech. An example must be made, and the Supreme Court needs to use this case as the opportunity to make that example.

The bottom line is hate speech shouldn’t be tolerated. Other forms of speech are fine and what make this country great, but hate speech does nothing but set our country back.

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2 Comments

  1. I have to disagree with you on this one, where do you draw the line? You used pornography as an example of free speech that could be banned. As we all know that decision has opened a major discussion on what is pornography. The same here, what is considered hate speech? Who is going to define hate speech?

    As much as I detest what WBC does I don’t think it should be illegal. If we declare their tactics as hate speech then what will be next and where do we draw the line on what can and can’t be said.

  2. a way to productively disagree with WBC (via @shortformblog):

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