Yesterday, the Supreme Court voted 8-1 in a case involving the Westboro Baptist Church and the father of a soldier killed in action. The Westboro Baptist Church, if you grew up, or have ever lived in Kansas, is probably a group you’re familiar with. They are one of those things you wish other people didn’t know about your state. Kansas Attorney General Derek Schmidt called them an”embarrassment.” Those are strong words from a conservative, religious politician. To sum them up, they are a group that takes a radical view against homosexuality. I can give you three examples that explain the lengths this church will go to if they can obtain press attention. One, they regularly protest at the University of Kansas, because KU has gay students. Two, they protested at a concert for the band Barenaked Ladies. The members of Barenaked Ladies are Canadian, they said, and Canada condones gay marriage. The third is very recent. They intended to protest the funerals of those killed in the Tuscon shooting at an event held by Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords. They backed off when offered radio time by local radio hosts. I first wrote about that here.
Oh yeah, and they protest about every funeral for American soldiers killed in action. That is what spawned the lawsuit that came before the Supreme Court.
It was a fundamental question of free speech. The Phelps clan contends that American soldiers are killed because God is angry over our attitude toward gays and lesbians. It’s important to note that history shows there is little that the government or American people could do to make these people think we’re okay. If we held a witch-hunt and lynched every homosexual person in the country, they would likely say we didn’t do it with enough enthusiasm. They entire world view is built on anger. Mainstream Christians may not like homosexuality, but they tend to believe homosexuals can at least be saved. They can renounce homosexuality and things would be fine. While I may think that is wrong, at least they believe in a path to redemption. That belief of the possibility of redemption would be considered heretical to Westboro. They believe you must hate not only homosexuals, but those who side with them, and anyone those who doesn’t believe they destined for Hell. Anyone who doesn’t want homosexuals dead is the enemy. That’s basically everyone but the members of the Westboro Baptist Church, and a few other fringe groups.
So the father of a fallen soldier sued them. He won, and the church was told to pay him $5 million dollars. An appeals court upheld that decision. The Supreme Court overwhelmingly disagreed. Only Justice Samuel Alito voted in favor of the father. He wrote that the Westboro protest was targeted speech intended to create emotional harm. The other 8 justices said it was protected speech dealing with issues of public concern.
I was conflicted about this decision. I love the idea of free speech. Free speech is maybe the most fundamental of all the rights guaranteed in the Constitution. I have lived my life with these people giving my home state a horrible public image, however. It is difficult to reconcile the need for free speech, when that speech is so hateful. These people don’t just hate homosexuals. They hate the rest of us because we don’t hate homosexuals enough. You can hate homosexuals, but if you don’t do it with enough vitriol then you’re still going to Hell. Is that the kind of speech the Founding Fathers wanted to be protected. The kind of hatred that does absolutely nothing to furthering the public debate.
I admit my desire to see the Westboro Baptist Church limited was personal and biased. I wanted the Court to shut them up because I don’t believe their message has any place in the public sphere. I believe hatred only promotes more hatred and hate speech is something we need less of. In the European Union and Canada this kind of speech would be illegal. I want the Court to have been wrong. I would love it if the Court were wrong. It turns out . . . they weren’t.
As I said, free speech is probably the most fundamental right the Constitution gives us. Free speech is what truly gives us freedom. We can have the right to bear arms. We can have the right to assemble. We can have the right to free press, but if free speech doesn’t exist none of those rights matter. I may despise the message of the Westboro Baptist Church, or white supremacists or any other group solely based on the hate of others, but if I want the right to write this article then they must have their rights also. Westboro Baptist Church must be allowed to exist as disgusting as it is. They must be allowed to exist so that this site, newspapers, magazines, TV programs and others can exist.
We should not be discouraged. There are ways to fight people like the Westboro Baptist Church. We can raise our voices in unison to denounce them. The American people won yesterday. We didn’t win because the Westboro Baptist Church kept its right to spread hatred and intolerance. We won because we solidified our right to rise up and defeat them. We won the right to drown out their message of hatred with a resonating chorus of tolerance. Nothing could be more important than that.