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The Limits of Free Speech

Freedom of Speech Must Mean the Freedom to Disagree

In recent weeks, cities such as Savannah, Georgia, and Columbus, Ohio, have been visited by members of the now-infamous Westboro Baptist Church. These protesters are well-known for their signs with slogans such as “Thank God for Dead Soldiers” and “God Hates Fags.” In many cases, such a protest at Hilliard Darby High School in Columbus, the counter-protesters have far out-numbered the church members.

Public outrage against the actions of this church continues to spread since the Supreme Court ruled in favor of the Westboro protestors with their decision in Snyder v. Phelps. Albert Snyder was suing the pastor of Westboro Baptist Church, Fred Phelps, after church members protested at his son’s funeral. Snyder’s son, Marine Lance Corporal Matthew Snyder, was killed in the line of duty while serving in Iraq. Phelps and the members of Westboro Baptist Church believe that God is punishing the United States for its tolerance of homosexuality by killing our soldiers, and for years they have picketed with their offensive signs at the funerals of soldiers.

In early May, TIME Magazine covered the controversy in a lengthy article. The article concludes that people do not seem to agree with the eight justices that sided with the hateful protesters over the grieving family. “I’m just very disappointed in America today,” Snyder told TIME. “You’ve got countries that won’t even let these people on their land, and we allow them to desecrate a Marine’s funeral. There’s something very wrong.”

As horrible as the actions and signs of these people are, and as easy as it is to get caught in the emotion of subject matter, let us apply some serious thought to the merits of the Supreme Court ruling. The Westboro protesters were on public property, they were not violating permit restriction, and they caused no violence. As Chief Justice Roberts points out in the majority opinion of the case, to say they could not protest (even though it was despicable) would have been a violation of the first amendment.

Maryland, the state where the incident occurred, has since passed a law restricting protests at funerals, but it is equally wrong to retroactively enforce that law. Roberts went on to say that if Maryland had such a law before the case in question, then the Westboro protesters would have been in violation and would have been ruled against.

The court had no intention of justifying the actions of the protestors, but the government does not have the power to sanction someone simply for being a loud-mouthed heretic. So why is it that so many people try?

This is not a question for those who are firmly entrenched in their ideology. Indeed, the die-hard central-planners have no misconceptions about the force of government regulation to limit “hate speech.” It is the well-intentioned with a righteously indignant sense of justice who are decrying the Supreme Court’s decision as insensitive who need to further examine the implications of their position. It is easy for our culture to claim to be “for freedom,” but occasions such as those involving the Westboro Baptist Church show us our hypocrisy.

We like free speech, until someone says something inflammatory. We like free enterprise, until someone we don’t like becomes wealthy. We like freedom of religion, until another religion or denomination (or individual church) takes action that is against our faith.

The Westboro Baptist members show up with signs that demonstrate only their own foolishness, and the pricked conscious of our society drives people, who ordinarily would distrust government intervention, to call for action.

If we say we are for freedom, then we need to stop using the government as a tool to take away the freedoms of those with whom we disagree.

Yes, there are times when our sense of justice will rile us to action. And incidents involving the Westboro protestors might be such times. But we must be careful to take appropriate action.

Righteous indignation can be a gateway drug to government involvement with untold consequences.