Posted by Michael Rutledge
Last Wednesday the Supreme Court ruled 8-1 in favor of the Westboro Baptist Church, defending their right to protest military funerals and spew anti-gay rhetoric. The ruling solidified the First Amendment’s protection of even the most deplorable hate speech.
The Westboro Baptist Church is led by Fred Phelps. It is a small fringe group of 80 members, made up mostly of his family, located in Topeka Kansas that has drawn attention by picketing the funerals of American soldiers. They claim that soldiers’ deaths, and all of America’s woes, are because of homosexuality. They regularly bring signs with slogans such as, “Thank God for dead soldiers”, and other shameful phrases. In 2006 they protested the funeral of 20-year old Marine Cpl. Matthew Synder. Synder’s father, Albert, sued the church; the case climbed the judicial ladder until it reached the Supreme Court in 2010.
The case brings up a daunting question about the protection the First Amendment provides people that use it to solely to spread their venomous and hate-filled ideas. As citizens we find it deploarable that people like Fred Phelps can be allowed to traumatize families whose loved ones gave the ultimate sacrifice for this country. But as journalists we have to cope with the fact that the First Amendment is worth defending at all costs, even if that means letting a cult group get away with verbal murder.
The Supreme Court has routinely stated that the First Amendment protects hate speech, but not violent action or fighting words. The Supreme Court uses the Fighting Words Doctrine to determine what is and is not protected by the First Amendment. In order to violate the Fighting Words Doctrine, speech must be directed at a specific individual, tend to incite the listener to violent response, constitute a direct personal attack and provoke the average person to retaliation. The Westboro Church pickets specific soldier’s funerals, but aims their hateful speech at broad groups of people (homosexuals). As long as they continue to partake in no violent action, their hate symbols and hate speech are allowed.
Do you think the First Amendment should protect people like Fred Phelps? Should we put faith in our ability to correctly pick and choose what is protected, while at the same time preserving the core values the First Amendment was created to uphold? Should the government be allowed to say that some speech is illegal and some speech is fine? In order to preserve the First Amendment do we have to tolerate this kind of acrimony?