Thursday, March 03, 2011

Westboro Baptist Church and Freedom of Speech

In the middle of every silver lining there is a big black cloud.

The Supreme Court upheld the rights of freedom of speech for the Westboro Baptist Church to say all of the offensive, mean-spirited, hate-mongering things they are prone to say.

(See: CNN Anti-gay church's right to protest at military funerals is upheld)

That's the silver lining.

Then there's the cloud.

In Wednesday's case, 48 states and dozens of members of Congress filed an amicus brief in support of the Snyders.

Fourty-eight state governments do not understand the right to freedom of speech?Which two did understand this right, I wonder? They deserve to be recognized and honored for this fact.

Dozens of members of Congress?

Plus, we have one (fortunately, only one) Supreme Court Justice himself who does not understand the right to freedom of speech - Justice Samuel Alito, the descenting voice in the 8-1 decision.

[F]ree and open debate is not a license for the vicious verbal assault that occurred in this case,

Yes, it is. Vicious verbal assault is contant. Praise and condemnation - including vicious condemnation - counts as speech. It is delivering a message. Prohibiting these messages means prohibiting speech because of its content. Alito should know this.

Plus, we have the words of Mr. Snyder who lost the case:

Snyder: Well there's not much we can do about it anymore. When the government won't do anything about it, and the courts give us no remedy, then people are going to start taking matters into their own hands. And believe me someone is going to get hurt. And when the blood starts flowing, let it be on the Supreme Court Justices' hands.

(See: CBS: Dad on Westboro: Blood is on court's hands)

So, "We are going to take it upon ourselves to use violence in response to words and, rather than take responsibility for our own violence, we are going to blame those who did not yield to our threats."

So, once again we see that the right to freedom of speech is not so well loved in America as some people would like to claim. With so many people willing to see such a right shredded, there is reason to temper the celebration with a word of caution.


Zach said...

I got into a huge argument with people on facebook on this case. People seem to think that what they did was harassment and not legitimate free speech.

Gingerbaker said...

"Fourty-eight state governments do not understand the right to freedom of speech?"

Really? What is there about 'time and place' restrictions that is unconstitutional?

Alonzo Fyfe said...


Really? What is there about 'time and place' restrictions that is unconstitutional?

"You have the right to freedom of speech, but you may only speak in a soundproof room when nobody else is present."

Are you saying that a time and place restriction cannot count as a limit freedom of speech?

Shena said...

Lot of folks might disagree, but I think the Supreme Court got it right on this.

dbonfitto said...

Within the territory of the US? Check.

After September 17th, 1787? Check.

Looks like the speech meets time and place restrictions.

It doesn't change the fact that Phelps is a jackass. It's just that he's allowed to be a jackass.

The best response to speech is more speech, better speech. Consider the response to his demonstration at a certain comic convention last year.

Danny Haszard said...

Harassment by religious extremist

Jehovah's Witnesses instigated court decisions in 1942 which involved cursing a police officer calling him a fascist and to get in your face at the door steps,....this same JW 1942 court decision upheld infamous Phelps hate church in 2011
Danny Haszard, more on this group

Anonymous said...

Freedom of speech like all freedoms should should be weighed with some objectiveness and be determined as to whether they are fair for all and not biased or prejudiced against anyone. Fair for all is the only thing that is fair. After all I have the right to free speech, but I couldn't yell "fire" in a movie theater if there wasn't any, or falsely accuse someone of being something or doing something if it wasn't true. If you judge someone according to something that hasn't even been established as being true like saying someone choose to be gay and you can't proove it to be true then it is known as slander and depravation of character which is not a part of constitution of free speech, because it infringes on others rights like the presumption of innocence.

isuzudale said...

I fully support the right of the Westboro loonies to express their virulent hate non-violently. It is a right grounded in the First Amendment. However, that same Constitutional right is widely denied atheists. The commander of Fort Bragg enthusiastically supported an evangelical Christian concert and conversion rally on the grounds of his fort. But he denied the same right to non-theistic soldiers to conduct a concert of their own on that base. The reality is that the Constitution is only applied to protect religious (Christian) expression, but is ignored as a potential protection for non-believers. The Bible trumps the Constitution, obviously.

isuzudale said...

I fully support the constitutional right of the Westboro loonies to express their virulent hate messages non-violently. The Supreme Court rightly upheld that freedom of religion principle. But what do you suppose the Justices will do when and if the Fort Bragg case reaches them?
The base commander at Fort Bragg enthusiastically supported the right of evangelicals on the base to present a "Rock the Base" concert and to allow them to even seek converts. But when a group of non-theistic soldiers at Fort Bragg sought to present their own concert, they were denied. The military repeatedly has discriminated in many ways against non-believers. It is okay, apparently, for atheists to give their lives for their country, but not to express their lack of belief in a magic man in the sky. For the U.S. military, The Holy Bible supersedes the Constitution. What do you suppose the right wing Catholic justices on the Supreme Court will say?

Anonymous said...

Finally! I can shout "Fire!" in a crowded theater!

Alonzo Fyfe said...


Finally! I can shout "Fire!" in a crowded theater!

Nope. Restrictions grounded on clear and present danger still apply.

Gatogreensleeves said...

To play Devil's Advocate: How about shouting something more ambiguous in a crowded theater that *may* still be in the context of a 'legitimate issue of national protest' (which the Phelps family was exonerated on)... such as "we're being attacked by terrorists!" (the belied implication being that we ARE being attacked by terrorists overseas...)?

Isn't there some way to alter precedent that isn't beholden to slippery slopes and acknowledges a viable middle ground on the continuum (there is so much vagueness in law [consider "disturbing the peace"]? Don't we the people have the power to decide and create specific secular language that excludes preferential precedent beyond a few specific ceremonial events, such as funerals, births, and marriage (ubiquitous across cultures). Sure, then religious people would want to get on board with their ceremonies (and people would INVENT ceremonies to avoid protest), but the clause could specifically be only those ceremonies recognized by a secular govt. (e.g. birth, death, and marriage). It would be a very difficult enterprise, but should we rule out discussing it just because it's difficult? It's clearly unethical what those fucknuts did. Would all this be too dangerous of an enterprise, considering the rhetorical prowess on the Court to get what they want?

Gingerbaker said...

"Really? What is there about 'time and place' restrictions that is unconstitutional?

"You have the right to freedom of speech, but you may only speak in a soundproof room when nobody else is present."

Are you saying that a time and place restriction cannot count as a limit freedom of speech?"

Of course not. What I am saying is that your statement:

"Fourty-eight state governments do not understand the right to freedom of speech?"

is unfounded. Time and place restrictions are not necessarily improper, they are ubiquitous,and they are often necessary in a civilized society. These forty-eight state governments may well be drawing up perfectly constitutional, reasonable restrictions, something far from " not understand[ing] the right to freedom of speech".

And time and place restrictions were specifically not addressed in this Supreme Court decision, because they didn't apply ( and the Maryland law was not in effect then). The WBC protested over 1000 feet away, and could not be heard and could barely be seen by the family conducting the funeral. They did not even know the protest had occurred until after the fact.

From the Supreme Court ruling:

"...That said, " '[e]ven protected speech is not equally permissible in allplaces and at all times.' " Westboro's choice of where and when to conduct its picketing is not beyond the Government's regulatory reach--it is "subject to reasonable time, place, or manner restrictions." The facts here are quite different, however, both with respect to the activity being regulated and the means of restricting those activities, from the few limited situations where the Court has concluded that the location of targeted picketing can be properly regulated under provisions deemed content neutral. ..."

Btw, are you sure you want to be an inveterate free speech absolutist now that corporations' corruption of government is protected 'free' speech?

dbonfitto said...

The problem with corporations is that they are afforded the rights of people without the restriction of actually being a person.

Bradley said...

There were two separate briefs, one for the senators and another for the states. Maine and Virginia were the two states that did not join it. The District of Columbia did.

The senators who joined in on the other brief were Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, and Senators John Barrasso, Robert F. Bennett, Barbara Boxer, Sherrod Brown, Sam Brownback, Richard Burr, Roland W. Burris, Benjamin L. Cardin, Thomas R. Carper, Robert P. Casey, Jr., Susan M. Collins, Kent Conrad, Mike Crapo, Byron L. Dorgan, Dianne Feinstein, Al Franken, Kirsten E. Gillibrand, Chuck Grassley, Mike Johanns, Tim Johnson, John Kerry, Amy Klobuchar, George S. LeMieux, Blanche L. Lincoln, Claire McCaskill, Jeff Merkley, Barbara A. Mikulski, Patty Murray, Bill Nelson, Jack Reed, James E. Risch, Pat Roberts, John D. Rockefeller IV, Charles E. Schumer, Arlen Specter, Debbie Stabenow, Mark Udall, David Vitter, Sheldon Whitehouse, and Ron Wyden.

Anonymous said...

It sounds like the commander at Fort Bragg has double standards, and most Christians that I know are hypocrites too. They constantly contradict themselves and are almost always biased.

Which is why we need to start to be more objective about the views of others that we may not favor as oppose to just being so one sided about certain issues. Eventually this kind of thinking becomes prejudice.