On March 8, The Lamron published an article by Nick Yager about the Westboro Baptist Church and the United States Supreme Court’s decision to uphold their ability to protest at military funerals.
For those unfamiliar, the WBC protests these funerals with signs like “God Hates Fags” and “Thank God for Dead Soldiers.” They believe that soldiers are being killed as part of God’s vendetta against America for its liberal policy on homosexuality. Yager argues that “protesting with hate speech [should be] a felony.”
Despite how detestable the WBC’s speech is, they do have a constitutional right to protest. I do not normally agree with the current majority of the Supreme Court, but I believe in this case they got the decision right.
The First Amendment states, “Congress shall make no law … abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people to assemble.” They are speaking and assembling, as per their rights.
The court has laid down many exceptions on free speech, but only one of which applies to this case. That is the precedent set up in Chaplinsky v. New Hampshire in which the court ruled “insulting or ‘fighting’ words … which by their very utterance inflict injury or tend to incite an immediate breach of the peace” are not allowed. Yet, this precedent was clarified in RAV v. City of Saint Paul, where the Court said the government cannot consider speech “fighting words” by its content, merely by its mode of delivery.
Why do we want to consider the speech of WBC unlawful? Because it is vile and repulsive. But that is not a sound legal argument. Yager argues that is unconstitutional because it is “trying to incite violence.” Yet, all the WBC is doing is holding signs and chanting – they’ve shown no evidence of inciting violence. In fact, the only violence at their protests has been by their opponents.
Part of the responsibility of living in a society that believes in free speech is being able to control your hostility against a certain group, no matter how odious their ideas. If it’s the recipient of the speech that acts violently, the speakers should not be held accountable unless it is a direct attempt to incite violence.
This is by no means a defense of WBC. Their revolting ideas and blatant homophobia are depictions of a disgusting, hateful worldview. Yet, their right to free speech and free assembly protects everything the WBC is doing.
Let us not forget that regulating speech based on whether we like it or not is a slippery slope. The Nazi government in Germany did the same thing, imprisoning and slaughtering those who spoke out against the government because they disliked the “content” of their speech. WBC’s terrible statements serve a purpose in the market of ideas created by free speech, reminding us the ridiculousness of the argument against gay rights. When taken to its extreme, we’re subject to asinine and sickening displays of idiocy. It reminds us of the importance of championing civil rights and using our First Amendment rights to uphold a reasonable position on civil liberties.
Because no matter how much they scream, our allowance of them to spew their garbage shows our moral superiority. We will honor the same brave men and women they defile by not stooping to their level. Instead we will use our own First Amendment rights to show the world just how wrong they are.
-Sam White, Class of 2013