Supreme Court to judge WBC for freedom to ‘hate’ speech.
Firstly, it is a shame to give publicity to Fred Phelps, and his hate campaign. This dangerous man, who started out with his own agenda has now bread three generations of people who were ‘weaned’ on his message of extreme religiosity. Whether or not the Supreme Court will uphold the groups’ freedom to speak so offensively on their anti-homosexual agenda, under the guise of religion and morality, Fred Phelps and his family have caused tremendous damage to individuals through intimidation, invasion and intentional emotional harm.
In 2006, Lance Corporal Matthew Snyder was killed in active service in Iraq and Westboro Baptist Church picked his funeral, baring signs that said: “God hates you,” “You’re going to hell,” “God hates the USA,” but the most distressing from a self professed ‘Christian Church’ group was “Thank God for Dead Soldiers.” These words clearly infer a desire to see another person come to harm. And if you’re not convinced, what about “Pray for more dead soldiers.” Matthew’s father sued the group, which consists mostly of around 70 members of the Fred Phelps’ large family, and won $5M. The 2007 ruling is now being appealed. On Sunday, the group picketed a number of Richmond churches, and engaged in a debate at VCU.
The Phelps family justify their pickets because they believe that God is enraged with America because it is too lenient to homosexuals. Their ‘logic’ is that God delights in the death of soldiers and that anyone who supports the gay community are bringing God’s judgment upon America. But this sentiment isn’t anything new. Mainstream Evangelicals have shared a similar message, but perhaps not as forcefully. Rev. Pat Robinson, host of the 700 Club has been quoted as saying, “Whenever you see a blatant rise in open homosexuality and lesbianism, you know that God has given a society up… and we are at the mercy of the elements, the mercy of war, the mercy of economic disaster.” (Ryan Jones, Fall from Grace).
Ryan Jones’s documentary Fall from Grace shows the inner workings of the group, including interviews with the Phelps grandchildren. Kids under 10 years of age take devilish delight as they recall the favourite signs that they display including, “God hates Fags.” One child said, “we tell these evil beasts, these fags, that they are going to go to hell if they don’t repent for their sins.” Of Pastor Phelp’s 13 children, 4 are no longer associated with the family, or the church. Dortha and Nate both describe their childhood in terms of their fear of having to contend with a violent and abusive father, and of growing up in fear of God. Both left the house in the middle of the night, never to return.
Westboro’s activity angers public citizens who are not experienced with this kind of hate speech, and as in Mr. Snyder’s case, often targets them in their weakest hour. Westboro take joy in inflicting emotional suffering, such as in the instance of the funeral of Matthew Sheppard (1998), who was mutilated by two men, and left to die, entangled on a fence because he was gay. Among others a signs, “Matt in Hell” “No special laws for fags,” were flaunted in front of his grieving parents. They even picketed the trail.
Free speech is an important part of a free country. But as Westboro abuses their right, they take away the rights of private, peaceful citizens. This is the discourse of the Snyder vs. Phelps case.
VCU and University of Richmond Law facilitated a mock debate of the Oral Argument scheduled for October 6th 2010 before the Supreme Court. Maggie Phelps, who is not only the daughter of Fred Phelps, but also the church’s attorney, argued against William H. Hurd, a Richmond attorney, the right to free speech and what constitutes Intentional Infliction of Emotional Distress. University of Richmond Law students presided the debate.
Mostly the debate centers around the right to free speech, and whether Snyder made himself a public figure, worthy of Westboro’s attacks and pickets. The current laws aim to protect private citizens from intimidation from hate groups, like the KKK. They also discussed the current restrictions of proximity on pickets at funerals. As far as I am concerned, a few hundred feet is still close enough to impact a grieving family.
We heard that Mr. Snyder and his family had to enter the church by an alternative entrance to avoid the pickets, as did many of the 1200 mourners. Bikers attempted to shield the protests by revving their engines, but Mr. Snyder was faced with the extensive media coverage of the protest in the subsequent days, adding insult to the loss of his son. Arguably Westboro can say what they want on their website, and in their church because you and I don’t have to read about it or engage in it unless we want to. But what about on the street, or in a park, or standing in line at a pop concert that you paid good money for? Talk about a mood killer. Do we really want people to be free to express such violent, destructive, hatful messages? Is that the kind of freedom we really want?
What the court is going to have to decide is where the boundaries of “free speech” begin or end. Can we uphold the 1st amendment, while protecting private citizens from the persecution and hate speech of groups like the Westboro sect? Do we continue to give Phelps airtime, and gratify his lust for attention for his propaganda? Is ignoring the voices of the bigoted, to endorse them? For me, there are no clear-cut answers to these questions. But let’s remember this, words have a great deal of power. Words can incite violence.
In attending the debate, I learned that there is an art to justifying ones own actions. Margie Phelps clearly learned the law to enable her family’s church to find ways to balance on the edge of it, and to desecrate the constitutional right to speak freely. Lets watch, and hope that our leaders and protectors in the Courts find a way to find a balance for the greater good of all.
You can follow this case at http://www.scotusblog.com/case-files/cases/snyder-v-phelps/
Phil Roberts is an educator living in Richmond, VA with his partner. His passions are for musical theater, literature, civil rights, health and fitness.
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