There he is, sitting on an army jeep in a tiny photograph that my grandmother had asked me to enlarge for her. She now has this picture on her wall. The photo was taken during World War II, and I could not be more proud of the former captain -- my grandfather -- who served in the army. I know many other individuals still serving in our nation's armed forces. Living and working in D.C., I met them on a near-daily basis.
At the same time, I think of the twisted human beings who travel around the country from Westboro Baptist Church with their delusional thoughts and picket at fallen soldiers' funerals. The absurdity surrounding the situation runs even deeper -- the protests, based upon hatred for homosexuality in the military -- are not even strongly tied to those who were bravely lost. But as the Supreme Court ruled last week, free speech prevails, and their protests should be allowed.
For a brief summary of the case, here it is: The question before the Court was whether or not the First Amendment, more specifically, freedom of speech, protects the members of Westboro Baptist Church from tort liability? Albert Snyder, father of the deceased soldier, Matthew Snyder, sued Fred Phelps, founder of Westboro Baptist Church, for several tort claims including Intentional Infliction of Emotional Distress and won millions of dollars in damages. In its holding, the Court found that Snyder cannot recover for any of the tort liabilities citing free speech as the underlying reason for this. Chief Justice Roberts wrote the following at the conclusion of the Court's 8-1 decision (J.Breyer concurring, J.Alito dissenting): "Speech is powerful. It can stir people to action, move them to tears of both joy and sorrow, and -- as it did here -- inflict great pain. On the facts before us, we cannot react to that pain by punishing the speaker. As a nation we have chosen a different course -- to protect even hurtful speech on public issues to ensure that we do not stifle public debate. That choice requires that we shield Westboro from tort liability for its picketing in this case." (Snyder v. Phelps)
I cannot disagree with the Court from a free speech standpoint. At the same time, Westboro's lack of humanity disturbs me to the very core of my soul. For a wide-angle legal analysis of the case, I contacted Jeffrey Toobin, legal analyst for CNN and The New Yorker. He wrote the following: "The case is painful and sad, but it's also, from a First Amendment perspective, easy. This case is why the First Amendment is sometimes described as freedom for the thought that we hate."
This case is undoubtedly controversial, so I wanted to reach out through social media and see individuals' reactions. Using Facebook, Twitter and other means of online communication, I asked for comments on the decision; they poured in.
See below for some of these responses and then feel free to post your own thoughts:
"I don't want to live in a country where the highest court of the land doesn't uphold the most fundamental rights afforded to its citizens by its constitution. While offensive in every way, I see the Westboro protesters as a symbol of everything that makes the United States different and better than the restrictive and abusive regimes in the Middle East and elsewhere. I am most proud to be an American after a decision like the one handed down this week."
"This case is mischaracterized as an attack on content-based speech restriction. Whether Westboro's message is 'God Hates Fags' [as was cited in the case] or 'The Earth is Flat' or 'Leprechauns are Blue' is immaterial. Westboro enjoys almost unlimited forums and ways to express their views, whatever they may be. The First Amendment has never been absolute. Obscene language, 'fighting words,' yelling 'fire' in a crowded move theater are all instances of restricted speech. I cannot believe that the First Amendment protects speech made with the sole intention of inflecting emotional distress on a family during what is likely the most painful moment of their life -- the funeral of their child. No one's speech or message is that important. The Court's analysis delves into the various First Amendment doctrine developed over the years, and entirely misses the point of a relatively straightforward issue. Westboro used speech to intentionally hurt a family saying their last goodbyes to their son. Is that what the First Amendment is really supposed to protect?"
-"it's free speech, but it's deeply upsetting that members of our society WANT to do that, that's the real prob here"
"Radical and hateful messages, even those coming from the Westboro Baptist Church, are a tolerable price to pay in exchange for the guaranty of First Amendment protection for all American citizens. The First Amendment must protect all messages if America purports to be a true democracy. We must ask the families of the fallen soldiers to make an additional sacrifice in accepting that there is no legal remedy for Westboro's appalling behavior. Communicating this heart-wrenching reality to Albert Snyder and those similarly situated is distressing, but necessary on the part of the Supreme Court."
-Washington University Law Student (Anonymous)
Free speech can be combated with free speech. We know we will not win in a courtroom against these hurtful individuals. But as our Chief Justice said, "speech is powerful." And right now I am using my own voice to say that I hope counter-protesters will rise up and use their own voices to silence the Westboro protesters' bigotry, ignorance, and basic lack of humanity forever. Some might say this is too much like Winthrop's "city upon a hill." Possibly. But in a land of free speech, we must accept these voices, but also must understand how to wage a peaceful war against them.