The Westboro Baptist Church (“WBC”) has a date with the Supreme Court. The Church – better identified as a hate group – is known for its vitriolic protests at funerals of US servicemen and various institutions across the country. The small group, mostly relatives of its founder and pastor, Fred Phelps, preaches a vicious anti-homosexual message. They claim that America’s supposed depravity is continually punished by an angry god – hence their frequent presence at the funerals of servicemen killed in action. They applaud these deaths as evidence of America’s wayward nature.
But one father, Albert Snyder has fought back. After the WBC picketed outside of his son’s, Marine Lance Cpl. Matthew Snyder, funeral in 2006, Snyder launched a lawsuit against the Church. The case is now on the docket to be heard before the Supreme Court this fall.
The case, which Snyder originally won before it was overturned by a Federal Appeals Court, pits Snyder’s privacy against WBC’s claim to First Amendment freedoms. Some legal scholars argue, that as heinous as WBC’s behavior is it nevertheless should be protected as free speech.
This argument, however, is rife with flaws. The right of free speech is predominantly to prevent oppression by the government. It is necessary not to allow sounds to come from individuals’ mouths, but to allow ideas to flourish and prevent those with power from silencing the minority. As has been argued on ANR before, free speech is not a concept that is synonymous with talking but one of expression of ideas.
In this regard, every spoken word is not deemed allowable. Certain speech, such as the classic “fire in a movie theater,” is deemed harmful and thus prevented. The logic behind such restrictions is that by yelling “fire” in a public place physical harm may be caused. However, harm need not be limited to the physical. WBC’s actions indubitably create harm, albeit often of the emotional kind.
The proper role of the government, when overseeing the interactions between individuals, is to serve as a referee to prevent unjust harm, or encroachment by one party on another. Whenever the desires of individuals come into inevitable conflict, the government should have well defined rules as to whose actions have un-righteously harmed the other. In all other instances, individuals should be left to their own devices. American’s possess the right to free speech to limit the government’s ability to encroach on their private domain – to prevent tyranny of the government. But that does not mean the concept of free speech should be weaponized to inflict harm on others. The WBC should be entitled to preach their dastardly views to those who wish to be party. They should not be prevented from having or expressing their opinions. But there is a time and place for any act. When such expression moves into the public sphere and causes intolerable harm, it has crossed a line. Free speech must be coupled with freedom to avoid speech.
If the Supreme Court allows WBC’s actions to stand, it will greatly miss the mark on how America should be structured. To disavow the direct harm that comes from a misappropriation of this right in no way diminishes the concept of free speech, but rather strengthens it. This is not an issue of establishing a slippery slope, as some claim, but one of clearly defining the concept. Without such definition, the concept of free speech becomes a mockery, where any individual can cloak himself in its guise – not to speak but to cause damage. If preventing such damage is not the responsibility of government, then there is little for it to do.