By Jade McDowell
Once again, the Supreme Court of the United States must make a difficult decision between protecting highly offensive speech and upholding the First Amendment.
The case in question, Snyder v. Phelps, will determine whether the grieving father of a fallen Marine can sue the Westboro Baptist Church for protesting at his son’s funeral.
For those of you not familiar with the inflammatory Westboro congregation, they travel the country to hold protests outside funerals for soldiers. They don’t protest the war, but rather hold signs saying they daily “thank God for dead soldiers” and “pray for more dead kids.” They claim the war is America’s punishment for tolerating homosexuality.
Let me make this clear up front: I do not, in any way, support these peoples’ message. I think we can all agree anyone who would attack a military funeral with such a stunning display of hate is a miserable excuse for a human being.
That being said, I hope the justices follow in the footsteps of their predecessor, Justice William O. Douglas, when he said “Restriction on free thought and free speech is the most dangerous of all subversions. It is the one un-American act that could most easily defeat us.”
Yes, what these people are saying is terrible. But we are on very dangerous ground if we tell them they don’t have a right to say it.
Rulings by the Supreme Court are used by the lower courts as precedents in similar cases for decades after. That’s why the court has historically ruled in favor of pornographers, racists and other less-than-desirable types. The justices are hesitant to set any precedents that might be used to stifle free speech of a less offensive nature later.
The main argument for ruling against the Westboro minister and his congregation is that funerals should be treated as an exception to freedom of speech rules because of their emotional nature. If the protesters had stormed the church or linked arms in front of the grave, I would agree.
However, the court has ruled in the past in favor of restrictions on “time, place and manner,” and the Westboro protesters followed all city ordinances, staying several hundred feet away from the mourners.
These are the same rules that keep the protesters at General Conference from following you inside the conference center, and I think it more than appropriate to apply them to funerals as well. But however much those protesters might offend me, I still support their right to make their voices heard from an appropriate distance, because I would like the same right should I someday decide to picket an “adult shop” or abortion clinic.
As recent controversy over President Boyd K. Packer’s conference address shows, many people consider aspects of the LDS faith to be offensive “hate speech.” If we stop the Westboro church from protesting today, maybe tomorrow we will be stopped from standing up for the more unpopular things we believe. What happens to a healthy flow of discussion when we put an $11 million price tag on hurting someone’s feelings?
History and current events alike show us censorship is not the best way to combat ideas we don’t agree with. Instead, we should fight fire with fire, or bad ideas with good ideas. We should not be afraid to allow one “wrong” opinion to be voiced, because bringing that opinion into the open creates the opportunity for it to be defeated and 10 better ideas to be brought up in return.
This doesn’t mean we should protest at the funerals of the Westboro congregation members in return. But we can take a clue from the Patriot Guard Riders. With permission from the families, these patriotic motorcyclists position themselves between the mourners and protesters, revving their engines to drown out the voices of the protesters and waving large American flags to block their signs from view.
When we protect the rights of people like the Westboro Baptists, we also protect the rights of people like the Patriot Guard Riders. That is why fighting hate speech should be the job of the people, not a branch of the government.
If someone says something bigoted or mean-spirited, speak out. Don’t be afraid to tell them you think they’re in the wrong. I hope the Supreme Court continues to protect your right to do so.