Sunday, April 11, 2010

Westboro Baptist Church and the First Amendment

By now, most of us have probably heard about the mine explosion that occurred last Monday in West Virginia. The tragic event left 25 dead and many others injured. What some might not have heard is that the Westboro Baptist Church has made their way up to West Virginia to make known their sentiments regarding the situation. For those unfamiliar with the Westboro Baptist Church, a few years ago they became infamous for showing up to funerals of American soldiers with signs that read “God hates homosexuals,” claiming that the death of soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan was due to America's toleration homosexuality.

Before what was to be an excursion to West Virginia for protests unrelated to the mining incident, the Church claimed to have received threats about their trip. When the mine exploded, they saw it as a vindication of their mission and condemnation of those who were against them. A quote from the NY times article on the group (from the website of the group) reads, “So God reached down and smacked one of those mines, killing 25 (and likely four more are dead),” it said. “Now you moan and wallow in self-pity, and pour over the details of the dead rebels’ lives, pretending they’re heroes.”

The Supreme Court has already agreed to hear the case of Albert Snyder, father of American soldier Lance Snyder, whose case concerns the Westboro Baptist’s Church’s protest at his son’s funeral. The lower court’s struck down this case on First Amendment grounds claiming that the Church’s members were protected on free speech grounds.

It seems likely that the Supreme Court will also rule in favor of the Church. They are a private religious group with no governmental connections. In many of the cases our class looked at for this week, Goldman v. Weinberger and Sherbert v. Verner to name two, the government played a role in the restriction of free exercise. The role of government interest seems also to be the sticking point for the Court’s decision regarding the restriction of free speech and exercise. Here, the government has played no such role. One could perhaps argue that the Church is defaming the military and therefore the government has a “compelling interest” in restricting the Church's speech. But this would be a stretch since the influence of the group is relatively small, save for the large amount of media attention that they have received. In other words, there is no indication that the Church is a real threat to the government or people and therefore no compelling reason to restrict their speech and exercise.

Unfortunately, it seems likely the public will have to continue to put up with the Westboro Baptist Church and their protests in West Virginia and soldiers' funerals. Perhaps, if there is a positive side to the case, it is that it pushes our appreciation of First Amendment rights to the limit. If we can put up with this, then we can probably put up with anything. And in the end it teaches us about the underside of the First Amendment that we sometimes forget.


John S. said...

The whole matter with Phelps and Westboro Baptist is strange. My understanding is that all of their lawsuits are ruled under Free Speech. They comply with all assembly laws or permits for their activities, so they are mostly untouchable. Hate speech and "fighting words" legislation would seem to be applicable here, but my understanding is that these sorts of protections tend not to hold unless some other crime is committed in conjunction. Interestingly, to censor Westboro's speech, no matter how reprehensible, would be in opposition to the purpose of the Free Speech protections. The only real way to combat groups like this is to eliminate their support, which has proved difficult even for the most radical and distasteful. Unfortunately this type of hate speech must be causing some to give money to this operation in order for them to continue to engage in these activities. What Free Exercise does make clear in this case is that you can't legally question the belief system behind their rhetoric. As for the whole bit about the mine explosion, what's worse than their using the accident as divine justification for their actions, is the likelihood that someone out in TV land thinks they are right to do so.

Dallas M said...

First and foremost I have to say that the death of the miners in W.Va is very saddening to hear. Second I whole hardly believe that this Westboro Church is taking their comments way to far. I understand that the right to free speech is granted to one and all in this country but to basically go out and say that these people deserved to die is just immoral. I doubt the compelling interest test will work on the Westboro Church since as stated in the post that their influence is small and their actions will be seen as freedom of expression if taken to court. However, I hope that the Westboro Church learn to keep their thoughts to themselves unless they want those threats to turn into something more drastic.

Christa L said...

Actually, the Westboro Baptist Church has received more than threats. They've been bombed and argue that soldiers killed by IEDs are retribution for the IEDs used against them. Moreover, they may be receiving some money from those outside the church, the church consists of Fred Phelps's children, grandchildren, and great grandchildren.

All that is beside the point, though. I wonder why the Supreme Court would agree to hear Albert Snyder's case. After all, the government clearly has no compelling interest to censer this language. The group is following the law and obeys all neutral time, place, etc restrictions. They aren't asking for an exemption. Aside from that - and that the government tends to be loath to censor based upon content - this is a religious group. They can make a great Free Exercise argument.

I may not agree with what the Westboro Baptist Church says, but I will be shocked if the Supreme Court decides against them. Even more than that, though, it would be wrong for the Court to rule against this group.

Rachel B said...

I think we can all agree that things said and done by the Westboro Baptist Church are shocking to us all. And, I definitely Josh’s comment that with a case like this we can see the under-belly of the First Amendment. It is somewhat shocking that a group as radical and essentially hateful as this is so protected. Whether someone is for or against our presence in Iraq and Afghanistan at this particular time, I think that we all have sympathy for the men and women in the United States military.

I think that the protests at the funerals present a different situation from the statements made about the mine explosion. In this country, the military always presents us with a type of special case scenario. In this instance, I do have to disagree with one of the comments made by Christa. I will not be shocked if the Supreme Court here’s the Snyder case. The military is and has always been given special considerations in this country and I for one do not see why this would be any different. Whether or not the Court rules in favor of Snyder or the Westboro Baptist Church is a different matter entirely.