In a striking and unilateral defense of the First Amendment right of freedom of speech, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of the Westboro Baptist Church today, guaranteeing them the right to picket at military funerals and stage the hateful protests they’re so well-known for.
According to the SCOTUS brief on the case, Snyder v. Fred Phelps et al, the church has a constitutional right to picket funerals and stage their demonstrations, no matter how controversial the message they preach is.
For those of you who are uneducated about the WBC, let me give you a brief primer. WBC is a “church” in Kansas headed by a rapidly aging, hate-spewing ex-lawyer named Fred Phelps. The church frequently pickets military funerals or gay pride events to inform Americans that their tolerance for sin, particularly the “sin” of homosexuality, has put them on God’s black list. You may recognize them from pictures of Midwesterners holding large signs that read, “GOD HATES FAGS.” A little further research on the insane beliefs held by the Phelps’ will show that they believe that more or less everyone person who isn’t a member of their hate-mongering church has been signed up for eternal damnation for some crime or other.
Back to the Supreme Court decision! The court ruled, in an 8-1 decision in fact, that WBC does in fact have a right to say what they want where they want, no matter how much hatred is behind their words. As long as Phelps and friends adhere to the given guidelines for orderly protests/pickets, which they did in the case brought before SCOTUS, they are merely exercising their constitutional rights.
To me, this really brings up a crucial and confusing moral question: Do people have a basic right to say and believe anything they please, so long as it doesn’t bring direct harm to others? The Supreme Court answers that question with a definitive yes, and so do I. The most basic principle of the First Amendment to our constitution is the right to free speech. Even if the only things that a person or a group has to say are hateful, disagreeable, or downright wrong, that person or group has a right to say them.
Now, I’m by no means defending the opinions of the Westboro Baptist Church. On the contrary, I’m saying that, while the opinions that these people hold are utterly despicable and deplorable, they still have a right, in this country, to voice those views. Because our government is made up of so many diverse groups of people, often with diametrically opposite views, and our broader population is even more diverse, it’s impossible to say that any one view should get special treatment. While almost everyone in the country disagrees with WBC, if we were to make a law against them, then we would be institutionalizing the majority viewpoint, rather than an unbiased law. And that’s exactly what the Constitution was meant to prevent… right?
This does bring up one issue though: What if what they say is more than controversial, but outright dangerous? The UK has explicitly banned Fred Phelps and one of this daughters from entering their country, and threatened to exclude any other WBC members who tried to get in. Their reasoning is that the message of hate that the Phelps’ preach has the potential to incite hatred and violence toward gays in the country, and that this is reason enough to keep them well away from British soil. This other side of the argument is a difficult one to deal with. On the one hand, I want to say that I support the rights of all people to say and believe what they choose. But isn’t there a limit? Once a person’s belief starts inflicting terrible emotional harm on others (as WBC does at military funeral pickets), hasn’t it gone too far?
To be perfectly honest, I don’t know which way I should lean on this issue. I do, however, have an answer for how to handle the WBC: Minimize their impact. As it is, the WBC makes national news more often than almost any other religious institution (though I would be hard-pressed to say that the WBC is really any kind of religion), even though the church is really only composed of a small core of insanely radical nutjobs. Because they’re so radical and hateful in their message, the church gets an incredibly disproportionate amount of coverage and attention. So, I would say that their power doesn’t come from their message, their signs, or even their protests. It comes from their infamy.
People treat the WBC as an influential force of evil in the States, which to some extent is true. But truth be told, they have almost no real power or influence on peoples’ opinions! The more the Westboro Baptist Church is treated like a force to be reckoned with, the more strongly they’ll voice their repulsive opinions. Counter-protest them when you can, tell your friends who they are, but don’t treat them as if they matter even a bit. The more distress and pain we show because of these peoples’ actions, the more they’ll continue to inflict suffering. So if you ever come across Fred Phelps and his cronies, turn around and pay them no mind, instead focusing on the people they’re trying to hurt. Because we want our children and grandchildren to look back at these people with utter disbelief, and laugh at the idea that someone could ever be so ridiculous.