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Editor’s Pick
OCTOBER 6, 2010 9:23AM

Protecting reprehensible speech

Rate: 15 Flag
The U.S. Supreme Court is hearing, today, arguments about the constitutionality of a lawsuit filed by the father of a Marine killed in combat against an infamous church that protested and disrupted his son's funeral.

Let me start by saying that the actions of the members of the Westboro Baptist Church are reprehensible and disgusting. People whose loved ones die, no matter the cause or manner, should be permitted to grieve without disruption by zealots who care nothing for others and only for their cause. But it seems the lawsuit seeks a restriction of protected speech. So, while it attacks the outlandish behavior of the Westboro protesters, it also, if successful, could have a chilling effect on others exercising their First Amendment rights in other situations.

It seems to me the more prudent approach to this problem would be for the authorities to create an area for the protesters - close enough to be associated with the funerals - but far enough that they don't disrupt the services.

This is done in New York City all the time. Protesters at the United Nations are given opportunity to gather across the street in a plaza. Where they can be seen and heard without disrupting the travel of those entering or leaving the UN.

The Westboro goons have rights. But so do those burying their loved ones killed in the line of duty. There's no reason both sides can't be accommodated without setting new rules that could erode the First Amendment.

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I completely agree. Freedom of speech has always been to protect reprehensible speech, nobody needs to protect nice speech.
Agree. I'm actually surprised that this case got so far. It seems like a no-brainer to me. Free speech, even disgusting and reprehensible free speech, is protected.
This makes sense. How about taxing all churches and houses of worship too. That would eliminate the viability of hate groups like this that run under the cover of religion, they probably would not be able to afford to travel to so many places, since their congregation is not large. Just a thought.
How could any reasonable person disagree? Seems pretty cut and dry.
Well, Fay, unfortunately the Supreme Court doesn't always seem to make reasonable decisions!
I wish there was an easy way for everyone to be satisfied in this situation, but I just don't see it. It's become a zero sum game, and everyone wants to win.
Awhile back there was a college-age girl killed in Reno, Nevada. She was taken out of a friend's house over the holidays, where she slept on a couch in the living room. It took some time, but her body was eventually found in a field south of the city. Her killer was later apprehended, via some very efficient, comprehensive police work.

For some reason, the Westboro gang decided to protest her memorial service, held at the convention center in Reno. They said her death was due to the sinfulness of her life, her hometown, her state, her America. Friends and students stood alongside the side entrances of the convention center, with wall-sized banners affixed to 10-foot dowels, to create a visual block; the motorcyclists roved along the north side, ready to create a noise shield. It was snowing like crazy. I was there.

The WC gang got off a city bus - the press had already pledged Not to cover the event, and they held to their promise, both video and print journalists - and, after mucking around in the slush for a bit, got back on the next bus, going back to the sin-filled hotel which they'd retained for the night.

I'm a staunch defender of free speech. Heck, even ol' Glenn Beck gets a pass. But this, these WC people, their actions verge on hate-speech, inciting to riot. I know they have the "right". Hell, the Nazis in Skokie had the "right".

But that don't mean they're right.

“Do not judge, or you too will be judged. For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you (Matthew 7:12).”
But don't we also have a right to oppose hate speech whose purpose might be to cause harm or violence? Freedom of speech doesn't allow people to slander for example or instigate a riot.

I too fully support protecting freedom of speech, but some people abuse that right for their own publicity goals or other motives.
It's hard to type, but I agree. If each one of us worked to protect that speech that offended us the most.... well, it would drive us crazy, but it would be the right thing to do and ensure the widest latitude for all of us.
I don't think anyone will disagree with their right to say stupid, hateful stuff. I think the problem is where they said it.

I just screamed fire in my truck. The dog looked at me kind of funny but it went unnoticed except for those who were suppose to hear it, me. They have a church and they can say their crap and the only people who will hear it is those who showed up to hear it.

I believe what they said, where they said it, and when they said it was to cause grief to the family and those at the service. Since they intended to cause pain to those there I believe the award should stand. If they had done it an hour before or after the service they would have been fine. Their timing and travel tend to prove their motive.

Give the family the money and punish the group.

While I agree that hate speech should be protected, we must ALWAYS test the hate speech. . . . All speech is NOT protected

I've opined here:

Cheers !!!
Gene Out
freedom of speech is better thought of as freedom to know. the community can defend its rights in a way no individual can.

a wise community let's anyone say anything. setting limits inevitably results in the truth being bent to suit the limiter.
Thank you for this concise post, I couldn't agree more. One of the challenges of a commitment to free speech is understanding that “even reprehensible speech is protected”, as Jeanette (upthread) said so well.
Something which either I'm missing or the press coverage is missing, is that this was a tort action. Plaintiffs case is based on the results of Westboro's actions, not their right to take those actions. I can do as I wish, within the criminal code. But if my exercise of those rights causes you this case emotional damages to the tune of $5M, then woe be unto you. Westboro and it's followers can keep protesting their way into bankruptcy for all I care. But the First Amendment doesn't preclude civil damages...any more than it protects a publication from damages for libel.
"It seems to me the more prudent approach to this problem would be for the authorities to create an area for the protesters - close enough to be associated with the funerals - but far enough that they don't disrupt the services."

As far as I know that's exactly what happened. The gathering, protest, whatever one calls it, happened around 1,000 feet away from the church, in an area designated by the police.

The situation seems pretty clear-cut to me. I don't know why the Supreme Court even decided to hear it. You can't sue someone just because he says something offensive or hurtful. Otherwise the courts would be filled with such cases, and they would never do anything else.

I can imagine a case that might constitute intentional infliction of emotional distress. Let's say that someone phones you and falsely says that your wife has just been killed in a fiery car crash. There is no political or social content involved. The story is not true, and the entire point of it is to cause you great psychological or emotional harm.

I could see how something like that could constitute a legitimate legal case. But the Westboro case is nothing like that.

Nick writes: "But don't we also have a right to oppose hate speech whose purpose might be to cause harm or violence?"

You have the right to oppose it through offering your own speech in opposition. It doesn't mean you can sue and collect $5 million because your feelings were hurt.
Keeping them far away enough so that they don't torture families, seems like a plan. Beyond that though someone should be looking into their funding and their tax exempt status as a "church." My understanding is that many of the family members are lawyers and they live to sue. You are right that we should change the constitution or lose our rights because of them, but I resent the idea that these grifters not only hide behind the constitution but also get special rights as a religious institution.
Your solution is very similar to my own: an accommodation being made away from the ceremonies.

In the case of Westboro this a family of lawyers playing the system for a ride, so any victory in their favor is a strike at the heart of the Constitution. The speech being protected does not mean it must be abusive and traumatic to other party with no interest in the rights of the offended party.

If anyone heard the arguments from Westboro they were pure double-talk about how no legal definition of "abuse" exists ... so basically they can do whatever the hell they want. These people are taking the SCOTUS & the entire nation for a wild hay ride.
I think people commonly are too quick to defend this case as an example of "political speech." The comparison would be the Skokie case regarding the Nazi march. I dont think this case meets those parameters. The Skokie case, while reprehensible also, was political. But this case gets is just thinly veiled hate speech.

This organization is ostensibly a church. In America, spirituality and politics are officially separate. They are individually joined, if an individual so chooses, but the political apparatus owes nothing to religion in tis country. That being the case, political ideas wrapped in religion place the responsibility on the individuals presenting the speech. These are not ideas recognized by a secular government. That which "god likes", or "god hates" is only relevant insofar as a citizen has claimed it, not recognized as "god" having said it. When those statements are threatening, as these have been, then it is not political speech, it is hate speech. If they were to replace "god" with the first person pronoun, or with someone's name, the statements would not likely be protected speech. "God" is the loophole, and it is a concept that is not proven or politically relevant. Also, if the target of these statements were not gays, but rather some ethnic group or religion, this would also not likely be swaddled in the first amendment protection. The notion is that somehow gays are essentially different from these other groups. This court may endorse that view, I dont. I think one can easily distinguish between political speech and this hate speech without diminishing everyone's right to free speech.
Bill writes: "Also, if the target of these statements were not gays, but rather some ethnic group or religion, this would also not likely be swaddled in the first amendment protection."

Why not? Let's say that Juan Sanchez dies, and the Congregation of the Holy Insult holds a celebration 1,000 feet from the church where his funeral is being held, complete with signs stating that "God hates Mexicans." So what? What would it matter? How would that not be a matter of free speech?
We do waste a lot of time protecting those who need no protection in this country. And ignoring those who do. Just an observation.