A jury in Maryland yesterday punished the Westboro Baptist Church to the tune of $11 million for protesting at the funeral of an American soldier that America’s tolerance of homosexuality is responsible for the death of its soldiers. This verdict is a violation of the right to freedom of speech, and is an illegitimate use of government power.
Let us pass a law that allows people to express a particular opinion without fear of punishment. However, this law also states that the speaker must stand in a sound-proof booth with the door closed, and is only permitted to speak when he is alone in the room. It would be absurd to say that this law protects the essence of the right to freedom of speech merely because the agent is permitted to utter the words – if it prohibits him from uttering those words in a manner in which others might hear them.
The Bush Administration makes a mockery of freedom of speech when it sets up what it jokingly refers to as ‘free speech zones’ at Presidential appearances – gated areas far away from the cameras and the President’s view where people can say things that the President would not like. In fact, calling these places ‘free speech zones’ is entirely accurate, because it is only within the zone that the freedom of speech exists. Whereas, outside the zone, the moral concept of ‘freedom of speech’ is being mocked and ridiculed by an administration that symbolically and physically puts fences around it.
The verdict against the Westboro Baptist Church is simply another application of the concept of ‘freedom of speech’ as the President and his administration understands it. This, too, is a message that one may speak freely, but only at a time and place where they can be easily ignored, and where their voice will reach as few people as possible.
One of the facts about the Westboro Baptist Church is that they were able to substantially increase the size of their audience precisely because they hold these protests at the funerals of American soldiers. A part of the reason why they are being sued is because they spoke in manner in which they were heard by people who did not want to hear what they had to say.
In fact, a part of the verdict rendered against the Church ($2 million) was for ‘emotional distress’. There is no sense to be made that the Church caused emotional distress other than because of the content of that speech – because they were saying something that displeased other people. If we allow it to stand that speech is prohibited when its content ‘distresses’ others, then there shall be no right to freedom of speech, because there is no such thing as content that does not distress others.
We can see further evidence of the fact that this speech is being punished because of its content by noting that if the family had been met with a crowd of the same size making the same amount of noise, but conveying a different message (one that honored and praised their son for his sacrifice), the family would likely not have filed a protest. This case is not like one in which a person complains about a neighbor’s loud music late at night – a complaint based on the neighbor’s interference with one’s sleep and not on the content of the music. This is a case of a family saying, “I do not like your message; therefore, I shall bring the power of the state against you to prohibit you from speaking in a manner in which I might hear you.”
Now, saying that this verdict is a violation of free speech is not to say that the Phelps family is immune from any sort of criticism – that the family (and those who have sympathy for the family) must bite their lip and say nothing against them. It is as much a violation to free speech to ban those who condemn the protesters as it would be to ban those who protest America’s ‘acceptance’ of homosexuality.
The right to freedom of speech is not a right to be free of condemnation for what one says or in the manner in which one says it. The right to freedom of speech is a right to be free from violence (whether in the form of private violence or government censorship) for what one says or the manner in which one says it. This civil suit against the Westboro Baptist Church crosses the line between legitimate protest (in the form of words and private actions) and illegitimate protest (violence in the form of government action) against the words of another.
In this country, we have an unfortunate tradition of holding that if a view is a religious view that we must not only refrain from using government force against the members of that religion, but we must not criticize it. Representatives of the Westboro Baptist Church have been able to buy a certain degree of legitimacy – or, at least, immunity from criticism for their beliefs – by asserting that those beliefs are religious.
Hopefully, the era in which religious attitudes were held to be immune from criticism merely because they are religious is coming to an end. In fact, if we wanted a poster child for the legitimacy of condemning religious attitudes, the Westboro Baptist Church provides an excellent example for all of us. Here are people who clearly deserve to be condemned, and for whom the defense, “Ours is a religious belief,” is entirely irrelevant.
Still, nobody is denying them the right to peacefully practicing their religion. Freedom of religion, like freedom of speech, does not imply immunity from criticism. It only implies an immunity from private or government violence – except in self-defense.
The right to freedom of speech means nothing unless it is granted to people who say things that (others think) is worthy of condemnation. It is a flat contradiction to assert that freedom of speech exists where one must first submit the content of their speech to a review board who will determine first whether the speech might cause ‘emotional distress’ to others who might come across it.
In fact, the Westboro Baptist Church is deserving of the harshest condemnation in the form of words and private action against their speech. Not only should they be condemned for the absurd belief that the intolerance of homosexuality in American can influence a God to alter the course of a bullet in Iraq to take an American lives, not only are they to be condemned to wanting American soldiers killed, but they are to be condemned for refusing to respect the solemn occasion of a funeral.
Indeed, this condemnation and private action should be more vocal than it has been. Those who are interested in protecting the funerals from this type of invasion should have taken up the challenge long ago of protesting this group itself, condemning the group and any who aid them in their cause – their financial backers, and any who do business with them where that business contributes to the success of their mission. This is a case where refusing to protest, condemn, and take private action against this Church can itself be made reason for condemnation. So, the other Baptist churches in Kansas, for example, should be pressured to bring words and private actions to bear against this church, and be condemned for refusing to do so.