By Elisabeth Peelor
There is an old science-fiction novel from the 1960s titled The Gods Hate Kansas. I can’t speak for any supreme deities here, but one church in the unfortunate city of Topeka is hated by just about everyone here on Earth save for its sixty-odd members. Whatever Kansas did to upset the invading aliens in the aforementioned novel is probably tamer than the acts of the “church” in question – the Westboro Baptist Church, or WBC.
In the brainstorming session for our school newspaper’s Opinion section, the temporary label given to this article was “Satan Church.” I was not the one who named it that, but I would have to agree. This is a hate group masquerading as a Christian church. You’ve probably heard of them before without knowing the group’s name – these are the ever-charming “God Hates Fags” people. Their latest escapades involve picketing at funerals for fallen U.S. soldiers, bearing signs with lovely phrases like “Thank God for dead soldiers,” “You are going to hell,” and the classic “God Hates Fags.”
Back in 2006, someone finally took the battle to court: Albert Snyder, whose son’s funeral was picketed by the hate group. He won his case against the church in a lower court; Phelps was ordered to pay $10.9 million in damages, but this charge was lowered, and eventually dropped altogether, when the case was brought to the Fourth Circuit and reversed in 2008. The Fourth Circuit decided that the WBC had been in the right, and ordered Snyder to pay Phelps $16,510 to cover court costs. This case has been challenged, and will be brought to the Supreme Court in the next year as Snyder v. Phelps.
As much as I would like for Phelps to spontaneously combust in a cloud of rainbows and sparkles (or take a spectacular flying leap out of the closet, wearing a tutu and riding on a unicorn) I am reminded of the quote: “I disagree with what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” The right to free speech is one of the most important aspects of American freedom. The ability to dissent and speak against elected leaders is key to the U.S. form of government, where all citizens have a say in the proceedings. Free speech is important, and cannot be limited by what any one group sees as “acceptable” speech, because when one opinion is censored, it opens the door to all opinion being censored at the discretion of the majority.
Free speech, however, is not absolute. There is the famous example of falsely shouting “Fire!” in a crowded theater not being protected by the First Amendment because it would cause panic and chaos and potentially injury. Libel, slander, and obscenity are not protected by the First Amendment (though what exactly constitutes obscenity is up for debate.) Threats and harassment are also not protected; personal attacks on private individuals are rarely tolerated.
The Phelps case is tricky. Their protests are clearly a form of harassment, and against private individuals, but as judged by the Fourth Circuit, these protests, while taken very personally by the victims, are not entirely personal attacks as much as broad statements made at the expense of the funeral attendees. Much the same could be said of protesters outside of abortion clinics.
Phelps and his “flock” did not cross the state-imposed limits as to where protesters can gather at a funeral. Snyder did not even see them until he saw them on television later that night. Can it still be counted as harassment? The WBC members were not breaking any laws, their side argues.
The First Amendment gives them a decent argument, but still I long for a legal defense to stop this hatemongering. Can their hateful signs count as obscenity? That’s a maybe. Their protests are designed to cause emotional harm – a funeral is a private ceremony, and oftentimes a religious one, so are the picketers infringing upon the victims’s religious rights? That’s another potential argument.
There are no easy answers. The best solution in this case is for the WBC as a collective to exhibit a little human decency, but as that will not happen anytime soon, Godspeed, Mr. Snyder. Godspeed.