Westboro Baptist Church And The High Cost Of Free Speech
It should be no surprise that people get offended with a lot of the things I write. And to tell the truth, I’m often offended by what a lot of the people comment back to me. I guess what goes around comes around. But that’s how it works when you live in a social fabric. Whenever we step outside our world, whether it is physically going through the front door or by reaching out through the walls of our homes through radio and television airwaves and through the internet, we take a chance of being offended. And if we care to exercise our freedom of speech, we run the risk of offending others.
A lot of people use their voice to offend others. Somebody is always offended with touchy and strongly opinionated subjects like abortion, race relations, politics at all levels of government from the local to the national, religion, the ethics of certain sciences, intelligent design being taught in our science classes at public schools, the ethics of universal healthcare, school spending, and many, many others. People will be ready to fight over what’s the better car company between Ford and Chevy. More than once I had a former soldier tell me that he joined the service to fight for my freedom of speech so I needed to just shut the hell up. I found that pretty offensive.
On the other hand, some of us wear our devotion on our sleeves and we often look for that which might offend us. I’m often left scratching my head wondering why some ubër right winged conservative would feel the need to come visit my little website and then leave an over the top nasty comment about me or about black people in general or about liberals in general. Some people love to troll the net looking for a fight to pick. Others happen into it by accident. That’s what happens in a social network. But the people at the Westboro Baptist Church appear to be doing their best to kick offensive speech into the stratosphere.
Westboro Baptist Church is a group of unbalanced, highly religious, fervent, anti-gay individuals that routinely shows up at the funerals of American soldiers who died in the service of their country to express its belief that the deaths are some form of divine retribution for this country’s tolerance of homosexuals. Four years ago, the group picketed the funeral of Lance Corporal Matthew Snyder. Mathew was a Marine killed in Iraq. When his family was exercising their religious freedom to have a funeral to lay his remains to rest, protesters from Westboro gathered at the edge of the cemetery holding signs saying things like god hates faggots and thank god for dead soldiers.
The family of Matthew Snyder sued the church for intentional infliction of emotional distress and other civil violations. The family won that case. But an appeals court held that the picketers were protected under the 1st Amendment. On Wednesday, the latest version of the United States Supreme Court will hear arguments in this case that will assuredly test our devotion to the principle of free speech.
The members of the nation’s highest court might rule against the protesters out of a truly understandable sense of compassion for Snyder family’s ordeal. Having people display their bigotry with actions that have the same impact as a neon sign tattooed to President George Washington’s forehead on Mount Rushmore is pretty disturbing. Having it done to a young soldier who sacrificed his life in service to his country would make such a ruling a slam dunk. But would that be what’s truly best for the country?
The high court should resist any temptation to make a ruling influenced by emotions of compassion for the Snyder family or distaste for the Westboro members. To award financial damages for distress caused by the speech of others would be a dramatic departure from the court’s protection of free expression no matter how offensive. According to Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., we should be eternally vigilant against any attempt to check the expression of opinions we loathe. That was written nearly a hundred years ago.
And once we go down this slippery slope, who will determine what’s too offensive? Heaven knows I wouldn’t want people who are often telling me to shut up determining whether or not I’ve gone over the line. And I know for a fact that a lot if people would never want me to serve on that committee. Who has the wisdom to determine what speech is free and fair and what speech is offensive and over the line? From what I’ve seen, such a wise Solomon does not exist.
My heart goes out to the Snyder family. But just because somebody said something offensive about their dead son doesn’t mean we should be surrendering our right to freedom of speech. Somebody says something that you find offensive? I’m truly sorry but freedom of speech is sometimes a freedom to offend. No offense, but people need to realize that this is a pretty big club. All of us get offended by something somebody else has said or done. Offending others just so happens to be one of the more popular American ways of life.