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Why Restricting Westboro Baptist Church’s Protests Wouldn’t Harm Free Speech

10.06.10

Westboro Baptist Church could be one of the more offensive groups in the country today.  These people protest fallen American troops’ funerals to promote their anti-homosexual message.  To most anyone outside their congregation, it’s beyond appalling.

The lawsuit brought on by one of those deceased soldier’s families has caused the question of whether or not these protesters have the right to do what they’ve been doing.  The original verdict found in favor of the family, awarding them millions of dollars in the judgment.  However, this was then overturned by an appeal, citing that the Church’s right to free speech had been infringed upon.

Now it’s at the Supreme Court.  And they’re not having an easy time figuring it out, either.  Where is the line?  At what point do you say that your free speech is not allowed because other people find it offensive?

I’m a huge fan of the First Amendment and despite finding the actions and teachings of the Westboro Baptist Church outrageously wrong, offensive, heartless, and cruel, I worry about depriving citizens of free speech simply because I disagree with their stance on homosexuality.  I wouldn’t want my right taken away to voice my opinion on homosexuality — I mean, that would pretty much take away this entire blog!  The right to free speech is maddening at times because it requires us to hear things that we may not find acceptable whatsoever.

Take for instance pornography.  It was illegal for years — adult performers actually jailed for their participation in these films — due in part to the moral stance of the majority against promiscuity and what was deemed perversion.  Agree or disagree with porn, but it’s a person’s right to engage in that form of expression due in part to the freedoms in the First Amendment.

That said — you can’t just express your freedoms by stripping down and getting busy in front of a cemetery — regardless of whether or not a funeral is going on.  I imagine that would break some lewd conduct laws, no doubt (my lawyer friend feel free to chime in here for just what laws would be broken), just like I can’t walk down the street naked claiming that I’m expressing myself.  In that case, why can’t there be a law that restricts protesting at cemeteries during funerals? Isn’t the emotional sensitivity owed to those mourning the death of a loved one worth restricting free speech in a limited capacity? Surely if we accept that people must wear clothes when in public spaces, we can accept that people must keep their opinions to themselves while people do something as sacred burying their dead.

And on a final note, I just had to include this baffling reasoning by the WBC:

Church members say their broader message was aimed at the unspecified actions of the military and those who serve in it. They believe U.S. soldiers deserve to die because they fight for a country that tolerates homosexuality.

What does it say about them that they live, work, and are active, taxpaying (I’m assuming) citizens of this same country for which our troops fight? How are they somehow separate? The amount of cognitive dissonance is mind-numbing — that is, if any thought is even going into their rationale to begin with.

Image courtesy of NoHoDamon’s Flickr Photostream.

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8 comments

  1. There is only one problem with freedom of speech and that is, it allows people to cross the line of what most human beings would call basic human decency.

    Because the WBC disagrees with the military’s stance on homosexuality doesn’t mean they get to invade the very private space of a family at the funeral of a loved one.


    • Yeah that’s how I feel, too. It’s just too appalling. They can preach all they want about what they believe. Just not at someone’s funeral.


  2. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Ryan Mason, Michael Parks. Michael Parks said: RT @masonry: Why Restricting Westboro Baptist Church's Protests Wouldn't Harm Free Speech: http://wp.me/pqpBU-vZ […]


  3. I’m sure God also punishes anyone who rewrites the lyrics to include Him in Ozzy Osborne’s Crazy Train. Yikes! (I’m referencing the video of WBC members on the CNN link). And is there a special place then in God’s favor for those who fight for countries that DO NOT tolerate sexuality, like Muslim extremists? What a horrible common ground.

    I know this is not an equal comparison, but I immediately think of smoking bans in public places. While people have every right to smoke, they do not have the right to ruin the air that others breathe BECAUSE it’s shared space. WBC want people to believe that because they use public space for their protests,their hate speech is sanctioned. But I would argue that the case usually has been the opposite (yelling “fire” in public theaters or your above example regarding public nudity on public streets). BECAUSE it’s public space, certain restrictions can be warranted.


    • Yeah, I had thought about the screaming fire analogy, too so I’m glad you mentioned it, Endi. A very apt example. I hope they put an end to this. It’s just awful what they’re doing.


  4. Great post and food for thought as I like to call it.

    I am of the party that feels people should have the right to protest, but there should be boundaries about *where* and how. Harrassing people during cemetery ceremonies completely crosses a privacy boundary line that shouldn’t be allowerd.


    • Thanks!

      Right there with you. All about free speech, but c’mon: a funeral is not the right place or time to protest anything, let alone the disgusting display for which the folks at Westboro are infamous.


  5. […] The free speech battle will continue, I’m sure.  I’ve said before my thoughts on it.  If we can restrict when and how people can shout the word “FIRE!” then it doesn’t seem to me a stretch to disallow protests at anyone’s funeral.  Although, perhaps I’m being overly protective on this one.  Maybe it’s a necessary evil to protect all of our free speech and right to assembly. […]



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