Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Free Speech -- Westboro Style

Five years ago, members of the Westboro Baptist Church picketed the funeral of Marine Lance Corporal Matthew Snyder who was killed in Iraq. Their signs read "God Hates You," "God Hates Fags," "You're going to Hell," and "Thank God for Dead Soldiers" among many others. The church went further with a post on their website entitled "The Burden of Lance Cpl. Matthew A. Snyder." It reads as follows:
God blessed you, Mr. and Mrs. Snyder, with a resource and his name was Matthew. He was an arrow in your quiver! In thanks to God for the comfort the child could bring you, you had a DUTY to prepare that child to serve the LORD his GOD—PERIOD! You did JUST THE OPPOSITE—you raised him for the devil.
Albert and Julie RIPPED that body apart and taught Matthew to defy his Creator, to divorce, and to commit adultery. They taught him how to support the largest pedophile machine in the history of the entire world, the Roman Catholic monstrosity. Every dime they gave the Roman Catholic monster they condemned their own souls. They also, in supporting satanic Catholicism, taught Matthew to be an idolater.

Then after all that they sent him to fight for the United States of Sodom, a filthy country that is in lockstep with his evil, wicked, and sinful manner of life, putting him in the cross hairs of a God that is so mad He has smoke coming from his nostrils and fire from his mouth! How dumb was that?
Matthew's father, Albert Snyder sued Fred Phelps, pastor and founder of the church, for intentional infliction of emotional distress. After initial legal victories, a federal appeals court reversed earlier verdicts, going to far as to order Snyder to pay court costs for the defendants. The Supreme Court agreed to hear the case last year.

On March 3rd, the high court ruled 8-1 in the case of Snyder v. Phelps that the Westboro Baptist Church has a right under the First Amendment of the Constitution to verbally assault and defame fallen servicemen and their families at private funerals.  The lack of outrage to this decision amazes me.  Everywhere I look, we seem to be patting ourselves on the back, proclaiming another victory for free speech. I find this to be pathetic and sad.  I'm certainly no legal expert, but our increasingly broad interpretation of the first amendment is bordering on absurd.

The court claims that because the protests involved matters of public concern (homosexuals in the military, the Catholic Church, etc.), it is protected speech.  I fail to understand how a group of people who have the right and means to express the same views in vast numbers of ways are having their free speech rights violated should they be prevented from standing outside a private funeral, holding up profane signs and shouting obscenities with the intent to disrupt and injure.  Were not the rights of Albert Snyder and his family violated by this assault?  In a forceful and courageous dissent, Justice Samuel Alito makes a convincing case that they were.
Our  profound national commitment to free and open debate is not a license for the  vicious verbal assault that occurred in this case. Petitioner Albert Snyder is not  a public figure.   He is simply a parent whose son, Marine Lance Corporal Matthew Snyder, was killed in Iraq.  Mr. Snyder wanted what is surely the right of any parent who experiences such an incalculable loss: to bury his son in peace.   But respondents, members of the Westboro Baptist Church, deprived him of that elementary right.   They first issued a press release and thus turned Matthew’s funeral into a tumultuous media event.   They then appeared at the church, approached as closely  as they could without trespassing, and launched a malevolent verbal attack on Matthew and his family at a time of acute emotional vulnerability.  As a result, Albert Snyder suffered severe and lasting emotional injury. The Court now holds that the First Amendment protected  respondents’ right to brutalize Mr. Snyder.  I cannot agree.
Justice Alito goes on to outline the church's to long standing campaign to disrupt and attack the affairs of private individuals, and then addresses the question of whether or not this speech qualifies as discourse on matters of public concern.
In light of this evidence, it is abundantly clear that respondents, going far beyond commentary on matters of public concern, specifically attacked Matthew Snyder because (1) he was a Catholic and (2) he was a member of the United States military. Both Matthew and petitioner were private figures, and this attack was not speech on a matter of public concern. While commentary on the Catholic Church or the United States military constitutes speech on matters of public concern, speech regarding Matthew Snyder’s purely private conduct does not.
Alito brings some much needed sanity to this debate, and I find his arguments to be effective and compelling (His dissent can be found here. It's only a few pages long and I encourage everyone to read it).  The case raises obvious questions about the limits of free speech.  Can speech lawfully be used as a weapon?  And even more concerning -- is our privacy protected if we can be attacked in this way?  How easily can something be characterized as a "matter of public concern?"

A few thoughts about the Westboro Baptist Church.  These people are nothing short of terrorists.  They are also cowards and hypocrites.  They go out of their way to terrorize and harm people.  They do this to get publicity and raise the profile of the 50-member cockroach den they call  a church.  They extort families and communities by agreeing to cancel their protests in exchange for free air time on radio. They did this back in 2006 when they threatened to protest the funerals of the five Amish girls killed by a gunmen in Pennsylvania.  And again in January when they again called off picketing the funeral of the 9-year-old girl killed in the Tuscon shooting spree, proclaiming "she was better off dead."

Ever wonder how this tiny church can afford to send it's members all over the country, and the world?  In addition to requiring members to give 30% of their income, Fred Phelps and several of his children are lawyers who fund their activities through litigation. So even though they decry this country as a "Fag Nation" and the "United States of Sodom," Westboro members have no problem manipulating our laws to their benefit and enjoying the generous fruits of our freedoms, guaranteed by the lives of the very men and women they attack.

Church leaders have promised to quadruple their protests of military funerals in the wake of the Supreme Court's decision, believing it a sanction from God for their activities.  "I'm very glad I get to be the voice of God in this matter," said Margie J. Phelps, the lead legal counsel for the church and daughter of pastor Fred Phelps.  She added these kind words for the family of Matthew Snyder, "Shut up all that talk of infliction of emotional distress.  When you're standing there with your young child's body bits and pieces in a coffin you've been dealt some emotional distress by the Lord your God."

The Supreme Court's defense of Westboro Baptist Church and its actions is a perversion of the First Amendment.  If we can't see that, then we deserve the pain and injustice inflicted by people like this.   


Anonymous said...

I'll be honest, I'm torn on this one. I find what I have seen and read about the Westboro "church" to be pretty terrible. Plus, as a Christian, like it or not, they represent me to a point in a lot of people's eyes. My own moral code tells me that what they do is wrong, that they are a bunch of assholes.

But do we have a right to be assholes? It wouldn't be too hard to argue that we do have the right to verbally be assholes. We also have the right to be assholes in print. I read and hear people's views all the time that make me say, "jeez, what an asshole." Westboro members take it to an all new level for sure. I'm not even sure that asshole is strong enough of a word. But that is my opinion. While I haven't heard anyone either on the left or right (if that delineation is even applicable in this instance) say that these people are doing the right thing, I would bet that each person's reaction to the Westboro style of picketing is different. I would bet that there are those who are anti-war who look at it and say, "the war is wrong for sure, but that's going a little too far." As well, there are people like me who wouldn't feel all that bad to see someone shoot one of these assholes in the face.

But therein lies the problem. A lot of what I see as good and right might seem distasteful to others. I believe there is a God who is sovereign over all his creation. I believe his son came to earth as a man and died for my sins (including the repeated use of the word "asshole"). I believe that you should be able to support your current family before you decide to increase it. I believe that sex outside of marriage is wrong. I believe a person has the right to use deadly force to defend their life and property. I believe that homosexuality is wrong. I believe that our current president is a scumbag. But a lot of those beliefs when I write or say them make me an asshole in the eyes of others. That's cool. I can live with that. And if I'm being even somewhat honest, I'd have to admit as well that on some level, I enjoy that reaction. Further shame on me.

So where is the line drawn? Is there a line? If we say there is, and that these people (Westboro) cross the line, what keeps public opinion from shifting even further away from many of my own beliefs stated above? In that case, eventually I won't be able to write or say out loud what I think is right, and that bothers me as much as I am bothered when I see the Westboro members' hate.

If we're going to be looking for the source of our societal ills, I don't think it's the rights we have, I think it has to do with a refusal to wield those rights with any responsibility.

So as I said, I'm torn. Not only would I like to see Westboro go away, I'd like to see them told they're wrong. I'd like to see it held up in front of every person in this country. It fills me with a lot of anger when they cry out to the whole country claiming that they are speaking with God's voice. But the opposite side of that coin is that I don't want to be silenced. People that agree with many of my beliefs are already silenced enough. Try being a teacher who believes in God.

Even better than the fact that I'm torn is that neither do I offer a solution.


Jake Shore said...

Ted, as I said in the post, their opinions about America, gays in the military, or the Catholic Church, aren't the issue. They have a right to say and think whatever they want. The issue is to what degree they can use speech to assault and terrorize other people; and how this speech conflicts with our right to privacy, slander and injury.

In light of the way they specifically attacked Matthew Snyder and his family as Justice Alito outlined, do you really think this was simply a matter of expressing one's opinion on the issues? Courts have previously held that if their are other means available for an individual to express themselves then they may be subject to tort laws. Alito mentions in his dissent that there were z "limitless" number of ways open to church members to express their views.

The Westboro Baptist Church clearly went far beyond expressing their views of public concern, and attacked the Snyder family with the intent to cause harm.

If this is the new standard, then what prevents these animals from showing up and ruining your daughter's wedding because they have some beef with her religion or occupation?

I mean good grief, if you can be sued for millions for calling a woman "Sugar Tits," then how is this okay?

Anonymous said...

I must have missed where you said that their opinions weren't the issue. Also, your original post doesn't mention either slander or libel anywhere.

I am curious how can they "say and think whatever they want" if there are degrees applied to it.

Also, I'm pretty sure Mel Gibson was not sued for the use of "sugar tits," but I could be wrong on that.


Anonymous said...

I really liked your approach and thought is was a great, well written article. I've been able to see both sides along with Ted's response.

My conclusion personally is, yes, I agree freedom of speech means they can say whatever they want. However I should not have to listen to it if I choose not to. Now that is my opinion.

So opinions aside, since they don't seem to do much good here, legally I think this falls more under harrassment. People are being harrassed, pure and simple. I don't think any good and decent person in United States, religious or not, would disagree with this. I don't believe the definition of freedom of speech by our forefathers meant you could go harass and slander people at a private funeral. Actually lets look at both defintions.

1.to disturb persistently; torment, as with troubles or cares; bother continually; pester; persecute.
2. to trouble by repeated attacks, incursions, etc., as in war or hostilities; harry; raid.

*Free Speech: the right to express uncensored opinions.

If you call what the westboro church is doing as "freedom of speech" I believe it has been taken to a level not in its definition.

Although to me, our laws are so skewed sometimes. Rapist serving 6 mo, child/cannibal murderer out early on good behavior. So to me, I wonder, is it a no win situation no matter how hard we fight?


Jake Shore said...

Ted, it seems like you're playing with semantics since you didn't address the main point of my comment. Yes, they can say or think anything they want. Their opinions alone are not the issue. What is at issue is the means by which Westboro's members express those opinions.

In other words, the question isn't what they say, but how they say it. As Alito makes it clear, Westboro members intentionally harm people in order to express themselves. And yes, the courts have held that there are limits (degrees) on speech based on HOW you express yourself. For example you cannot use violence to express your opinions. You cannot express yourself through child pornography.

Ted, I understand your point that by limiting Westboro's ability to speak out, your own "unpopular" views may one day be considered unlawful. That is a legitimate issue. But I don't think that's the case here because as Alito said, "They may write and distribute books, articles, and other texts; they may create and disseminate video and audio recordings; they may circulate petitions; they may speak to individuals and groups in public forums and in any private venue that wishes to accommodate them; they may picket peacefully in countless locations; they may appear on television and speak on the radio; they may post messages on the Internet and send out e-mails. And they may express their views in terms that are “uninhibited,” “vehement,” and “caustic.”"

So how can we say Westboro's speech rights are being violated? Because they cannot brutalize private citizens based on their religion? Come on.

Wouldn't you acknowledge, Ted, there is a profound difference between:

1. Protesting against Israel and Jews on the steps of the capitol based on Israel's policy regarding Palestinians (matter of public concern). The signs say "Gaza = Aushwitz," "Jews are Evil," "Jews are murderers."


2. Standing outside the school of Sen. Joe Leiberman's granddaughter, waiting for her Kindegarten class to get out and while holding up similar signs with her name on them, shouting her down with hateful rants as she tries to get on the bus?

Our free speech would not be imperiled if Westboro was rightly held liable for their actions in this case. But I fear our right to be protected from people like this may be.

Anonymous said...

Jake, I'm not quite sure where I'm using semantics. Maybe you could point that out along with where in your original article you stated that their opinions weren't the issue.

I agree that there are already degrees on what we can and cannot say, as I stated in the last two sentences of my last full paragraph. We are already limited, which was part of why I originally stated that I was torn on this.

When the president is making a public appearance you can't just walk around wherever you want in the general vicinity protesting. There are areas set aside by the secret service and designated as "Free Speech Zones." And there's always the classic of you can't yell fire in a crowded theater.

But we also have pornography protected by the freedom of speech outlined in the First Amendment. Burning the American flag is also protected. And right now there is active debate as to whether burning a Koran (not to be confused with burning a Korean) is free speech.

Some of those things I agree with, others I think are total horseshit. I think if you can burn the flag, you should be able to burn the Koran. Heck, tear out the pages and wipe your butt with them.

Now, according to Alito's statement that Westboro is liable for severe and lasting emotional injury which it seems that you agree strongly with, if I go burn the Koran, have I caused severe and lasting emotional injury to Muslims? You know as well as I do that you could find a Muslim who would say that I have with little trouble. They are the same group that tried to kill Rushdie in the 90's and also wanted to kill that cartoonist a few years ago for presenting their religion and their messiah in a negative light. So should I be put in a position where I can be sued for burning a book? If I am correctly understanding your argument (and we already covered the fact that I might not be) you think that I should.

I would assume that your first counter to that would be that there's a big difference between what the Snyders suffered and what I laid out in that scenario above. But I guarantee you that there are Muslims the world over who would feel that my statement regarding the butt-wiping and burning of the Koran should be punishable by death, even more so the actual acts of burning and first degree (i.e. intentional and premeditated) butt-wipery. Muslims take their religion very seriously and in their minds suffer lasting emotional injury when Islam is attacked verbally or in writing.

What if Westboro said that they felt your description of their church in writing on a blog with slightly under 5,500 views as a "cockroach den" caused them severe and lasting emotional injury?

Sure there's a difference between the two scenarios you presented, you intended them that way. So that I can understand you better, is there also a difference between your scenario no. 2 and Westboro's protesting at the funeral at the center of the Supreme Court case?

It's funny. At first, as I stated, I was torn about this. But the more you argue, Jake, the more I disagree with you. Weird. We usually are on the same side of most stuff.

So let me ask you this, who gets to decide when someone has suffered severe and lasting emotional injury? What is the criteria for severe and lasting emotional injury, and how do you prove it?


Jake Shore said...

It does seem like our wires are getting crossed a little bit, as we don't seem to be understanding each other very well. So we may just have to disagree on this one.

But I'll try to respond to all your challenges. First, the reason it seemed like you were playing semantics is because you were not (in my view) responding to the main point of my blog. You are right. I never actually said "Their opinions are not the issue" in the blog. But since my post was almost entirely focused on the tactics Westboro employed to express their opinions, it felt like your quibbling about a misspoken statement was a dodge or a pointless distraction.

Your main argument as I understand it, is that anyone can claim to have suffered severe and lasting emotional injury, and who's to decide what qualifies? My response is that you must prove INTENTIONAL infliction of emotional distress (which doesn't matter if the speech can be shown to have involved a matter of public concern).

So, using the scenario you laid out about the Koran and your butt, I would say, that is free speech. However, if you went to a Muslim's home, dropped a portable toilet on the sidewalk, and did as you say with their holy book in front of his entire family with the intent to injure, I would say - no.

And to answer your question about how my no. 2 scenario compares to what happened to the Snyder's, I think they are essentially the same (that was my point). In fact, the Snyder case is worse because Westboro sent out a press release, so the media would flood the event, put it all over TV, making it near impossible to ignore or escape (which is what they intended).

The question this case hinges upon is this: Are Westboro's free speech rights being violated if they are held liable for their actions toward the Snyders?

The Supreme Court says 'yes' because Westboro's actions were based on "matters of public concern."

I disagree because I believe they intentionally injure people to draw attention SO they can express their opinions on a larger stage. And because they are free to express those same opinions in thousands of other ways.

That's as clear as I can say it. I hope it makes sense.