The Westboro Baptist Church: Pushing the Limits of Free Speech

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Do they have the legal right?

On the morning of March 10, 2006, in Westminster, Maryland, U.S. Marine Lance Corporal Matthew Snyder was laid to rest. Snyder was killed in a non-combat-related accident in Iraq just 7 days earlier. Approximately one thousand feet from what Snyder’s family thought would be a peaceful ceremony, leader Fred Phelps and six other members of the Westboro Baptist Church from Topeka, Kansas quietly protested. The church members displayed signs that contained phrases such as “Priests Rape Boys”, “You’re Going to Hell”, and most notably, “Thank God for Dead Soldiers” for thirty minutes before the funeral commenced. This was not the first time the Westboro Baptist Church has traveled to protest a military funeral. The church had been demonstrating for over twenty years prior to this instance. In response to the picket, Matthew Snyder’s father filed a diversity action against all the protesters involved as well as the church with claims of “intentional infliction of emotional distress, intrusion upon seclusion, and civil conspiracy” (Snyder v. Phelps). The case traveled to the U.S. Supreme Court because the accused members of both sides were not content with the decisions made by lower courts.

So one might ask: should the Westboro Baptist Church be allowed to protest and say such vile things at such a private ceremony? Is it acceptable to demonstrate within such a close proximity to places like churches? At the same rate, should someone be able to protest at people entering a women’s clinic possibly to get an abortion? At what point is someone’s exercising of their right to freedom of speech infringing upon another’s freedoms? Although many protesters overstep moral boundaries, they have the legal right to protest within certain limits.

In the Snyder v. Phelps case, the Supreme Court came to the decision that the church had the First Amendment right to protest the funeral and had been “actively engaged in speaking on the subjects addressed in its picketing long before it became aware of Matthew Snyder” (Snyder v. Phelps). The nine justices hearing the case also examined three aspects of the protesting materials: content, form, and context, to determine if the Westboro Baptist Church meant specifically to harm Snyder. They decided that because the church’s attacks were directed more toward the public than anyone involved in the funeral, the protesters did not harm Snyder personally. The picketers also stayed 1,000 feet away from the church while protesting, so they did not invade Snyder’s privacy. In an 8-1 decision, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the Westboro Baptist Church had not broken any laws and stated that “even if a few of the signs…were viewed as containing messages related to Matthew Snyder or the Snyders specifically, that would not change the fact that the overall thrust and dominant theme of Westboro’s demonstration spoke to broader public issues” (Snyder v. Phelps).

While the Supreme Court ruled that the Westboro Baptist Church had the legal right to protest at Lance Cpl. Matthew Snyder’s funeral, a group of internet hackers called Anonymous argued that the church did not have the moral right to protest. In a letter that is similar in structure to the Declaration of Independence, Anonymous listed its grievances with the church’s past demonstrations and threatened to damage the protesters’ websites. Even though the Supreme Court’s decision was logically correct, the members of the Westboro Baptist Church are morally wrong in their protests. The negative public opinion of the Westboro Baptist Church as demonstrated in the letter shows that the church should discontinue their protests for moral and ethical reasons.

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In Des Moines, Iowa in 1965, three high school students were seen wearing black armbands to school. In a peaceful protest against the Vietnam War that was raging overseas, the small group of students silently showed their disagreement with the war. In response to the protest, the school suspended the students and outlawed the wearing of armbands while on campus. When two lower courts ruled that the ordinance was within the School Board’s jurisdiction, suspended students John and Mary Beth Tinker took the case to the Supreme Court. The higher court ruled 7-9 that even though the protest was on school grounds, it did not interfere with education and it also did not infringe upon any other person’s rights. The court determined that “the wearing of an armband for the purpose of expressing certain views is the type of symbolic act that is within the Free Speech Clause of the First Amendment…it can hardly be argued that either students or teachers shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate” (Tinker v. Des Moines). This case set a precedent for future cases involving students’ First Amendment rights while at school. Although the protests involved in this case seem more reasonable than those of Snyder v. Phelps, tensions were high about the Vietnam War in 1965 and the topic was much more controversial. To the school officials, the students’ protest was extremely upsetting even though it was peaceful. The two dissenting judges in this case demonstrate that even the most peaceful of protests are questionable.

In 2000, a group of petitioners from women’s clinics in Colorado disagreed with state law Section 18-9-122(3) that prohibited protesters to be within a regulated area of 100 feet from a clinic in order to approach a patient within eight feet of their personal space to council, educate, or give the patient any sort of pamphlet. The protesters complained that this law infringe upon their First Amendment right to protest the abortions that were being performed inside medical clinics. They further claimed that the law was tailored to make it more difficult for Pro-Life protesters to hold demonstrations. After a disagreement from both parties on the decisions with lower courts, the case was brought to the U.S. Supreme Court. While in the process of making a decision, the judges of the Supreme Court considered the concerns of each side. They said that while the rights of the petitioners were “clear and undisputed”, the entrance to a medical facility that provides abortions can be fertile for “potential trauma to patients associated with confrontational protests” (Hill et al. v. Colorado). The judges referred to the Ward content-neutrality test formed after an earlier court case about with a similar concern. They stated that Section 18-9-122(3) was constitutional because there was regulation on where speech occurs rather than regulation on the speech itself and the law applied to protesters that held both Pro-Life and Pro-Choice points of view. These ideas showed that the law means to secure the safety and health of a patient entering a women’s clinic and it is not in any way biased against Pro-Life protesters. The court further stated that the law is a “valid time, place and manner regulation, not overbroad, and not unconstitutionally vague” (Hill et al. v. Colorado). The majority of the judges found that Section 18-9-122(3) was not in violation of the Constitution because although the regulation made protests at medical clinics more difficult, it is “‛narrowly tailored’ to serve the State’s significant and legitimate governmental interests and it leaves open ample alternative communication channels” (Hill et al. v. Colorado). This case shows that there are legal regulations in place for some kinds of protest. Without these regulations, certain groups of people could be hurt or have their own rights infringed upon by protesters.

In mid-September 2011, a group of protesters against corporate greed and corruption in the United States began demonstrating in the financial district of New York City. Within a few weeks, these Occupy Wall Street protests began to spread across the nation. The peaceful protests consist of demonstrators sitting or standing quietly on a sidewalk while holding relevant posters. In an article praising the protesters, author Roland Martin begins with a quote from former U.S. Supreme Court Justice Hugo L. Black from the 1964 case New York Times Co. v. Sullivan. Black says, “An unconditional right to say what one pleases about public affairs is what I consider to be the minimum guarantee of the First Amendment” (Martin). Martin expresses his disgust with politicians’ and media commentators’ negative depiction of the Occupy Wall Street protesters. He argues that “without dissent and protest, there is no United States of America!” (Martin). According to the author, the recent revolts in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, and Bahrain would not be possible without protesting. The Occupy Wall Street protestors are simply exercising the rights given to Americans by the Founding Fathers. He applauds the protestors as well as the Tea Party protests that took place a few years ago. Even though Martin disagrees with the Tea Party protests and agrees with Occupy Wall Street, he sees both groups of protesters as valuable citizens for exercising their rights to make a change. Although one may disagree with the Occupy Wall Street protests, the demonstrators do more to make a change in the country than news commentators do. A recent survey shows that of 1,005 adults interviewed about the Occupy Wall Street protestors, 35% had a positive opinion of the protest and only 16% had the same feelings about Wall Street and big businesses. Even in this young movement, American citizens have a great feeling about this peaceful, not offensive protest. Even though the Occupy Wall Street protests can be in inconvenient places on city sidewalks, the reasonable message behind the demonstration makes it easier to feel good about the First Amendment.

In contrast to the Westboro Baptist Church protests, Occupy Wall Street is both legally correct and morally correct. Although the Westboro Baptist Church members had the legal right to protest, they did not have the moral right. The church took what was supposed to be a sacred event to honor the Lance Corporal Matthew Snyder and tried to turn it into an example to other soldiers. Although not all protests are not as peaceful and moral as Occupy Wall Street or Tinker v. Des Moines, many cases like Snyder v. Phelps or Hill v. Colorado still exist. The power of peaceful protest easily outweighs the emotional distress and anger certain immoral protesters can cause others. While the First Amendment allows the Westboro Baptist Church to continue to draw the negative attention and contempt of Americans, worthy protests like Occupy Wall Street allow citizens to make a positive difference in the country.

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