Discussion Question: Did the Supreme Court Get it Right with Snyder v. Phelps?
The Supreme Court recently ruled 8 to 1 that members of the Topeka, Kansas-based Westboro Baptist Church are entitled to stage their controversial antigay protests even when they cause substantial injury to family members and others attending the funeral of a loved one.
Chief Justice John Roberts wrote the majority opinion stating, "What Westboro said, in the whole context of how and where it chose to say it, is entitled to 'special protection' under the First Amendment and that protection cannot be overcome by a jury finding that the picketing was outrageous."
Do you agree with lone dissenter Justice Samuel Alito statement that "Our profound national commitment to free and open debate is not a license for the vicious verbal assault that occurred in this case," or did the Supreme Court get it right?
Not since the Vietnam era, when antiwar protestors harassed National Guardsmen and police, have we seen anything quite as jarring as the Westboro Baptist church protesters disrupting military funerals in Topeka, Kansas. While the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have hardly united the country, the majority of Americans are at pains to show respect for the dedication and service to the nation given by the armed forces. While it might be possible to see in this bi-partisan hero worship a developing culture of militarism, few have been heartened to observe the public demeaning of the sacrifice of brave soldiers. Indeed, news footage at some of the funerals shows protesters holding up signs reading things like "God Is Your Enemy," " Thank God for IEDs," and "God Hates America."
Most everyone, Christian or not, Republican or Democrat, is troubled by such language. Certainly the family of one gay serviceman took violent exception to the attack on their dead son. They sued and a trial court in Maryland found for them and awarded $11M, later reduced to $5M. For many that was a fitting end to the sad incident. But the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals threw out the judgment on First Amendment grounds. Finally, on March 2, the Supreme Court, in an 8-1 decision, ruled the antigay church has the right to hold such protests. Chief Justice Roberts, writing for the majority, noted that "speech is powerful" and can "inflict great pain." However, "As a nation, we have chosen...to protect even hurtful speech on public issues to ensure that we do not stifle public debate."
Great decision and a continuing affirmation of the First Amendment commitment to free speech. However, I cannot help wondering if it is a decision, or at least a case taken, that the court will live to regret.
Ironically, it was the Court's concern for privacy protection which led to the Lawrence decision and the rapid empowerment of the gay agenda that the Westboro members find so objectionable. And they are not alone. Many have come to the simplistic conclusion that rights lead to license. Indeed the Lawrence case arguably directly empowers moves to restrict privacy. The Westboro case could easily end up creating a backlash against many legitimate forms of public speech and protest.
The recent Washington hearings on Islam reveal a willingness, not to censure Muslims, but to see as threatening a wide array of religious "extremists." Such might well be the Westboro Baptists for many. Unpopular truths shouted in public places may, in the aftermath of continued financial and natural calamity, be declared unacceptable. It may be decided by the public after the "provocation" of a right writ large, that they will take action of their own. The net effect may be lack of respect for the law and the principle behind it.
Author: Lincoln E. Steed
Editor, Liberty Magazine
Lincoln E. Steed is the editor of Liberty magazine, a 200,000 circulation religious liberty journal which is distributed to political leaders, judiciary, lawyers and other thought leaders in North America. He is additionally the host of the weekly 3ABN television show "The Liberty Insider," and the radio program "Lifequest Liberty."