Westboro Baptist Church to Test Free Speech Protections

Church's protest at soldier's funeral challenged before Supreme Court

Monday, October 04, 2010

The Westboro Baptist Church of Topeka, Kansas, will soon stand before the nation’s top court to argue for their constitutional right to protest outside soldiers’ funerals. In their view, American deaths in Afghanistan and Iraq are God’s punishment for the country’s acceptance of homosexuality.

Albert Snyder is the plaintiff in the case; his son, U.S. Marine Matthew Snyder, was killed in Iraq in 2006. The WBC went to Snyder's funeral in Maryland, holding signs that read “Thank God for Dead Soldiers” and other fiery epithets. Snyder fought the group and won in a lower court, arguing the church deliberately sought to inflict emotional distress, but that decision was overturned at a higher court. The Supreme Court has traditionally been very reluctant to impose limits on our freedom of speech, even offensive speech: will this case qualify?

We speak with First Amendment scholar David Hudson and Richard Land, president of The Ethics and Liberty Commission, the public policy entity of the Southern Baptist Convention in the United States. (Despite their name, the Westboro Baptist Church is unaffiliated with any larger Baptist group.)

Guests:

David Hudson and Richard Land

Produced by:

Hsi-Chang Lin

Comments [12]

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Oct. 26 2010 12:51 PM
Vanessa from oklahoma

I am a christian and a military officer. I hate that this church is doing this around the country. They have made their apperance at a funeral in the town we live in right now. The sad part is that the marine and all the troops whos funerals they protest at have given their lives for these people to do this. I have been keepin my ear to NPR on how this is going at the Supreme Court. It seems that the church will be allowed to continue there protests, that is the right thing that should be done because of the constitution, even though I hate to say that. But they should also thank a soldier for allowing them to continue to enjoy their freedom of speech. This is a no win situation for the supreme court.

Oct. 07 2010 11:09 PM
Nick

Im a christian, and baptist to be exact, and these people go against everything the Bible teaches! This is not a religious protest, its a hate crime! They make Christians look bad and make us look like haters! We're NOT! these people infuriate me!
God Bless America and God Bless our troops!

Oct. 05 2010 12:34 AM
Deb Ruffins from Jamaica, NY

While this group is vile in their beliefs, the constitution is sacrosanct, the first amendment is the first amendment and both free speech and religious choice must be protected - the mainstream and the outliers. That said, funerals are private matters. I would hope that members of the communities that support these bereaved families would take a page out of my kid's school and turn out in force in a counter protest AGAINST this group. That kind of show of support would accomplish so much. When the group protested at Brooklyn Tech last year hundreds of teachers and students turned out to more than drown out the handful of members that targeted Tech's diverse student body. So much so that the group left their own protest early. Perhaps they don't have the stomach for the first amendment themselves?

Here's a link to the story. http://fort-greene.thelocal.nytimes.com/2009/09/24/students-turn-out-and-westboro-leaves/

This kind of organic response from the targeted community (or family) and its supporters is what it takes to preserve our constitution.

Oct. 04 2010 10:25 AM
CBK from Somerville, MA

1. All kinds and most contexts of speech should be protected, esp. speech concerning politics, culture and society. Most states are "at-will employment" states which means, among other things, that it is perfectly legal to fire someone because of their political affiliation. This is true even for employees who do not openly voice or otherwise indicate their views while at work, but are simply found to have such an affiliation outside of the job - say, on a blog post or Facebook profile. Such terminations should be a crime - hands down - as they represent a fundamental short-circuiting of the neutrality of our democratic process and, in my opinion, an effective violation of free speech. For example, if an employee at a retail or service outlet is found to be supportive of a progressive candidate that supports an increase in the minimum wage or, say, a just clause cause for employee termination, the employer might have an immediate selfish interest in firing such an employee - and, in most places, that would be completely legal.

Oct. 04 2010 10:00 AM
B from U.S.A. : Florida : Miami

Context is clearly a consideration when discussing free speech. The government and relevant authorities can definitely step in if I were to decide to discuss my sentiments on airplane bombs and terrorism while I'm sitting on an airplane or in an airport, regardless of whether I frame the commentary in a religious context or not. This case doesn't seem to involve the gagging of this sort of speech, but rather the context in which that sort of speech is appropriate. The fact that 40 states already have laws regarding the issue should speak volumes to the Supreme Court.

Oct. 04 2010 09:55 AM
CBK from Somerville, MA

All kinds and most contexts of speech should be protected, esp. speech concerning politics, culture and society. Most states are "at-will employment" states which, among other things, means it is perfectly legal to fire someone because of their political affiliation. This is true even for employees who do not openly voice or otherwise indicate their views while at work, but are simply found to have such an affiliation outside of the job - say, on a blog post or Facebook profile. Such terminations should be a crime - hands down - as they represent a fundamental short-circuiting of the neutrality of our democratic process. For example, if an employee at a retail or service outlet is found to be supportive of a progressive candidate that supports an increase in the minimum wage or, say, a just clause cause for employee termination, the employer might have an immediate selfish interest in firing such an employee - and, in most places, THAT WOULD BE COMPLETELY LEGAL. However, clearly, this gives implicit extra voting power to greedy profiteers who over common citizens who wish to demand basic justice. Thus, most at-will employment clauses active in most U.S. States exemplify how political speech and expression is NOT SUFFICIENTLY PROTECTED. Were I king, one of my statues would be to fully protect all kinds of political, social, religious and philosophical speech and expression by citizens outside of their workplaces - and most that occurs at work (if it is does not involve overt harassment, obscenity or shirking), by making it illegal to fire someone on the basis of such expression.

As a side note, Fred Phelps may be extremely insensitive, obnoxious and downright mean. Even many people who hold irrational views concerning sexuality similar to his would have the grace to refrain from persecuting mourning families following a hate crime of their homosexual son or daughter. However, I do believe that - in most cases - say in a public demonstration by the Phelps clan, his speech should be permitted to occur without penalty. I am gay myself, but fully support Phelp's right to publicly voice his rather perverse opinions in annoying demonstrations. Otherwise, we risk the law being used by the powerful to silence the messages of the oppressed - say, for example, if it were determined that those protesting corporate abuses and sweatshop conditions were "harassing" industrialists and financiers. I'm not sure about the funeral setting of this specific Phelps' rally, as the volume of his group's pronouncements and proximity to the funeral party might have been unduly targeted at this specific family, versus voiced to the public at large - in which case, harassment might be a valid charge. However, it's a very fine line, and I think we OWE IT TO OURSELVES to err on the side of individual liberty rather than totalitarian control.

Oct. 04 2010 09:51 AM
Jeff from Brooklyn

News and opinion shows (such as on Fox news) and political commercials should not be able to print/publish/broadcast false or misleading statements. of particular concern is when a program or television ad takes a small out of context clip of a person's speach to create "evidence" of one postition when the complete quote indicates an opposite position.

Falsely presenting opinions as facts without confirmable evidence, which pundits who have very powerful bully pulpits do all time, should be banned. Free speach is meant to protect the free exchange of ideas. As the saying goes, you are entitled to your own opinion, not to your own facts.

Oct. 04 2010 09:46 AM
Carrie Sikorski from Seattle

Hateful or violent racist and sexist commentary should be illegal. You can't read comments on internet stories or video anymore without viewing a pile-on of neo-Nazi style hatred and insults.

Oct. 04 2010 09:35 AM
ZB Smetana from KY

The principle of the so-called "fighting words" seems to apply here and therefore the actions of the church members should not be protected. In my opinion, this is a clear example or harassment pretentiously hiding behind the first amendment.

Oct. 04 2010 09:26 AM
Shari from Hollywood, FL

We've become a country of intolerant, irrational, reactive, ignorant jerks.

Oct. 04 2010 09:26 AM
scott zaretsky from Upper Saddle River, NJ

FIRE !!!! ... while in a crowded theater is a crime. When yelling FIRE when seeing a fire, behind closed doors in our home or on stage in context of a play is permissable ... the intent of yelling it in a crowded movie house or in this case --- GOD HATES FAGS at a funeral is harassment and invasive. While it walks the tightrope of freedom of speech, the Westboro "Church" has fallen off that wire and crossed the line. They ostensibly yell FIRE !!!!

Oct. 04 2010 08:43 AM

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