Supreme Court ruling tests American dedication to free speech

I am not a fan of the Westboro Baptist Church (WBC) as I am sure most other people aren’t. This is a church led by Reverend Fred Phelps, which consists mostly of members of his family. They are a hate group that spews out the most toxic bile you could ever imagine. And in the past decade they have made a name for themselves by holding anti-gay protests at military funerals carrying such signs as: “God Hates Fags,” “Thank God for Dead Soldiers,” “Semper Fi Semper Fags” and “Fags Doom Nations,” among others.

On Mar. 1, the Supreme Court of the United States handed down its decision in the case of Snyder v. Phelps. The case began with the WBC’s picketing of the funeral of lance corporal Matthew Snyder who was killed in Iraq due to a non-combat-related vehicle accident in 2006. With a near-unanimous 8-1 ruling, the court ruled in favour of the church that speech on a public sidewalk about a public issue could not be liable for emotional distress even if the speech is found to be “outrageous.”

I am sure this sounds outrageous to many people. But this ruling does not in any way legitimize their hateful speech. It only shows that there is a price for having free speech. It means we have to put up with the worst of it. We cannot pick and choose what is protected under freedom of expression. And we cannot simply censor those whom we disagree with, however passionately we do.

The court ruled in favour of the church mainly on the basis that their speech is of a public nature involving issues of society and politics and did not target any person in particular. Some may look at their signs and disagree with this assessment, but this is exactly what the WBC has been doing. They have been trying to spread their religious and political message off the backs of the bereaved, which is morally deplorable, but completely legal.

But there are surely limits to free speech, right? In the United States, these include copyright protection, the Miller test for obscenity and the regulation of commercial speech such as in advertising. None of these exceptions apply to the protests of the WBC. There is also a limitation to freedom of speech called the fighting words doctrine. It limits the use of “insulting words” or “fighting words,” those that by their very utterance inflict injury or tend to incite an immediate breach of peace.

The lone dissenter in this ruling, Supreme Court justice Samuel Alito believed that this was exactly the case. He called the speech of the WBC a “malevolent verbal attack” in the sense of a literal attack. I will not deny that Matthew Snyder’s father felt this way. But nobody has a right to have their feelings protected. And it is very disingenuous to equate words, however nasty they may be, with physical violence.

Freedom of speech is integral to a free and democratic society. In the First Amendment of the United States Constitution, it is given equal status with freedom of religion, freedom of the press and the right to peaceably assemble and petition the government for a redress of grievances. Believers in American exceptionalism should take notice. The protection of the freedom of speech of the WBC has set an important precedence. If you support freedom, you must support freedom for all.

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