Like most everyone that has followed this case, I was pretty damn angry at a CHURCH that would have the audacity to picket a soldier’s funeral for any reason. A funeral is a RELIGIOUS event, not a platform for dissent. Then they write a diatribe on their website about how the boy’s parents were at fault for his death because of how he was raised. The Snyder’s sued, and won $11 million, reduced to $5 million by a judge, and then reduced to $0 by a Circuit Court of Appeals. Then today, the Supreme Court ruled 8-1 in favor, not really of Phelps and his Westboro Baptist Church, but in favor of FREE SPEECH protected by the First Amendment. The one dissenting vote, by Justice Samuel Alito, left out there as a message, some experts believe, that there is still the possibility that you can cross the line by hiding behind First Amendment Protection.
The comments left on the news services web pages are what scare me the most. A good majority of them lash out at the Justices calling the ruling absurd, liberal, and worse. I read comments like, if that happened at their son’s funeral they would shoot them all in the head and use the bodies as fertilizer. Some did have the common sense to understand that this ruling is about freedom of speech. You have to be very careful, because if you can censure the contents of the speech, then the speech isn’t free. We don’t have a guarantee of “non-hateful” free speech in this country. And I’ll just throw in here that I don’t think the Snyder’s should have ever been awarded any monetary compensation for this demonstration of hateful, yet free speech. Tort reform is one of the biggest issues in this country, but a topic for a later time.
And the root of this free speech test is really all about homosexuality. It’s not about Gay Rights, really. It’s not about a protected class for gays, really. It’s not about gay marriage, really. It’s about how one religion, whether we agree or not, preaches that GOD is punishing us for accepting homosexuality in the US, and allowing homosexuals to serve in the military. That’s why they’re picketing, and why they chose the most hurtful way of doing it by using a soldier’s funeral. That explains why their picket signs say things like “God Hates You.” “Thank God for 911.” “Fags are Beasts.” “No Fags in Heaven.” Etc. But this “church” only had 71 members in 2007 and 85% or more are related. It’s also a “hate group” and is monitored in the country as such. It’s also not associated with any Baptist convention or associations.
So what did Chief Justice Roberts say in the Court’s opinion:
“Westboro believes that America is morally flawed; many Americans might feel the same about Westboro. Westboro’s funeral picketing is certainly hurtful and its contribution to public discourse may be negligible. But Westboro addressed matters of public import on public property, in a peaceful manner, in full compliance with the guidance of local officials. The speech was indeed planned to coincide with Matthew Snyder’s funeral, but did not itself disrupt that funeral, and Westboro’s choice to conduct its picketing at that time and place did not alter the nature of its speech.
“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.”
I like this opinion. I think it’s right. Free speech is not and should not be defined by whether it inflicts pain or not. We chose to protect it under our constitution completely and for the ultimate reason of allowing public debate. Homosexuality is a topic for public debate. Whether it should be or not has been discussed for decades. Gains have been made in swaying public opinion in favor of gay rights, and without that free speech, none of those changes would have happened. So if I don’t like that message, pretty much the opposite of the WBC message, and you chose to picket legally at my son’s funeral, do I have the right to sue you to shut you up? I don’t think so.
So the next time the WBC shows up with picket signs, show up with your own. Legally use your right of free speech. Because the next big constitutional test is going to be the law passed in Maryland, as a result of the Snyder case, that prohibits picketing at funerals. Where do you stop with that one? What if I don’t think you should be able to picket at Presidential speeches, and I get enough people to agree with me. WTF