Westboro lunatics have rights, too

WASHINGTON — I can call President Obama a pipsqueak, an idiot, a pretender, a Marxist Mau Mau. I can describe Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts as a hack, a dummy or a liar. I can label former President George W. Bush a war criminal. I don’t believe any of those things, but our Jeffersonian democracy allows me to write or say or scream those characterizations without fear of official retribution.

That’s the liberty we celebrate in the First Amendment — an ironclad commitment to an individual’s right to speak freely; to worship as he pleases; to peacefully assemble to mourn, to protest, to march, to parade. In civics classes, freedom of speech is explained as the cornerstone of the citizen’s ability to confront his government.

Seldom do we reflect on the flip side of that great liberty: the protections extended to the loony and the hateful to parade about in public saying vicious and evil things. It’s a lot harder to embrace that cherished freedom when it is misused by the malicious zealots of Westboro Baptist Church.

Still, the U.S. Supreme Court was correct in ruling last week that the Westboro bunch has every right to scream hateful rhetoric where it is most likely to give offense: as families gather to lay their loved ones to rest. Westboro founder Fred Phelps is incensed by the gay rights movement and its gains in the military, so he’s taken his vile little road show to the funerals of dead sailors, soldiers and Marines, heaping insult upon sorrow.

In case you’ve missed news footage of their antics, the Westboro bunch gathers near churches and cemeteries, carrying signs such as these: “Thank God for Dead Soldiers,” “Fags Doom Nations,” and “You’re Going to Hell.” Albert Snyder sued Phelps after Westboro members picketed at the 2006 funeral of his son, Lance Cpl. Matthew Snyder. You can hardly blame family members for wanting laws to protect them from that spew.

But the freedoms afforded by the Bill of Rights are a bit more complicated than that, as Roberts suggested. Writing for the majority that rejected Snyder’s suit, he said:

“Speech is powerful. It can stir people to action, move them to tears of both joy and sorrow, and — as it did here — inflict great pain . . . . We cannot react to that pain by punishing the speaker. As a nation we have chosen a different course — to protect even hurtful speech on public issues to ensure that we do not stifle public debate.”

Thomas Jefferson and James Madison understood that agreeable speech doesn’t need constitutional protections. There is a broad public consensus that protects the routine sprawl of protests that collect around the U.S. Capitol. Furthermore, preachers get to denounce gays from the pulpit; the New Black Panthers can rant about “whitey” in a public square; and Charlie Sheen can go on an all-media career-scorching rant — all without encountering much in the way of public calls for censorship.

But there is widespread abhorrence at Phelps and his motley band of cowards, who verbally assault families already staggering under their grief. The Rev. Phelps stands the Bible on its head; he willfully contorts the teachings of Jesus Christ; he smears mainstream Baptists with his hateful antics. His tiny church, composed largely of family members, has few supporters. Theirs is the speech most in need of the First Amendment.

After the ruling, Snyder told Time magazine that he was “very disappointed in America.” But if we are to celebrate ours as an exceptional nation, that’s among the things that makes it different. No other nation, not even the other Western democracies, provides as strong a defense of unpopular speech.

Still, I have to reiterate the obvious: The fact that a tiny group of fringe lunatics has the right to vile rhetoric doesn’t mean they are right. And the best way to combat them is with better speech — or, in this case, louder noise. So I’ve a special place in my heart for the motorcycle club members who gather, revving their engines, to shield mourners from the Westboro fanatics. They, too, have rights.

188 comments Add your comment

Keep up the good fight!

March 4th, 2011
8:13 am

Unfortunately the most vile of speech must and should be defended against attacks of “you can not say that”….. but you are absolutely right. There is nothing wrong with people saying “You can say that but you should not. It is impossible to reason with this group, so indoctrinated into their hatred, they cannot see. I dont agree with all that the motorcycle vets do to counter the vile speech, but I do understand their position.

Peadawg

March 4th, 2011
8:13 am

You’re a few days late Cynthia…Jay did this blog a few days ago.

” the motorcycle club members who gather, revving their engines, to shield mourners from the Westboro fanatics. ” – I get a kick out of that one…too funny!

Happy Friday everyone.

Chaps

March 4th, 2011
8:21 am

So long as the Westboro people are disrupting funerals of servicemen, you have no problem. Let them start protesting at the funerals of actual homosexuals and you would be screaming “Hate speech” and advocating laws against them.

Keep up the good fight!

March 4th, 2011
8:25 am

Chaps, thanks for posting without thought. Actually there are serious questions about the constitutionality of “anti-hate speech” laws. And the Westboro group has protested funerals of actual homosexuals and many others, including Elizabeth Edwards.

MiltonMan

March 4th, 2011
8:25 am

…yet Ms. Tucker has issues with the Tea Party and their vocalization. Even the clown president has spoken out against them while praising the Egyptian protesters as peaceful.

MiltonMan

March 4th, 2011
8:26 am

The Obozo Justice department dropped charges against the Black Panthers – open season for anyone to say anything & intimidate anyone at anytime.

granny godzilla

March 4th, 2011
8:30 am

MiltonMan

March 4th, 2011
8:26 am
The Obozo Justice department dropped charges against the Black Panthers – open season for anyone to say anything & intimidate anyone at anytime.

open season for anyone to say anything & intimidate anyone at anytime

except of course that no one was intimidated….but MiltonMan has free speech rights too…..is that grand?

Keep up the good fight!

March 4th, 2011
8:30 am

Milton Man…more posts absent facts today from you? Again, the right to speech does not mean that you should speak nor should speech involve racism…The Bush justice dept dropped the criminal charges against the 2 guys who have been labeled the New BP because there was no criminal activity.

0311/0317 -1811/1801

March 4th, 2011
8:34 am

(CNN) — “A day after the U.S. Supreme Court affirmed Westboro Baptist Church’s right to protest against homosexuality at military funerals, the fallen Marine’s father, who unsuccessfully sued the controversial Kansas congregation, warned that the church’s protests will eventually spark violence.”

“You have too many soldiers and Marines coming back with post-traumatic stress syndrome, and they (the Westboro protesters) are going to go to the wrong funeral and the guns are going to go off.”

Personally, I agree with the Supreme Court decision. However, these Westboro knuckleheads had better be warry of some fallen soldier’s father or other close relative having terminal cancer if you know what I mean.

They might want to research that before they show up.

Just sayin’

Ragnar Danneskjöld

March 4th, 2011
8:37 am

Good morning all. I respectfully dissent form the Westboro ruling. The case has nothing to do with free speech, but everything to do with intentional infliction of emotional distress. The plaintiff was not a state actor, and was not one who injected himself into public debate. The hate speech of the church was not directed at politicians or at anyone who injected himself into public debate, rather it was aimed at a private individual.

Presumably the Westboro ruling gives me legal right to stand across the street from abortion clinics and regale the clients of same with the most vile epithets I can imagine. Presumably I am now free to take pictures of the patrons of porno shops and post those on the internet. I assume my right to harass alcoholics patronizing a legal wine emporium has now been affirmed.

The ruling was wrong on the law and wrong on the merits.

Keep up the good fight!

March 4th, 2011
8:38 am

Zero, another irresponsible stupid…..yes STUPID… post suggesting that the way to stop Free Speech is with a gun and violence. We “know what you mean” and your suggestion that shooting and guns are an appropriate responsible is reprehensible. What you have just done should be criminal and given your claimed background in law enforcement is probably the DUMBEST post of the century.

DebbieDoRight

March 4th, 2011
8:39 am

Well, the bright side of this is, if the good reverend believes in hell as he says he does, then he should prepare himself and his members for their trip there. The not so bright side is that MiltonMan woke up, didn’t read the article, (just the subject line), and immediately did his “Anti-anything-cynthia-and-Obama” schtick.

DebbieDoRight

March 4th, 2011
8:41 am

RD: The case has nothing to do with free speech, but everything to do with intentional infliction of emotional distress

Perhaps the grieving parent(s) should look into filing a civil suit on that basis. Good point RD.

jambee3

March 4th, 2011
8:42 am

The anti-gay talk of Westboro is just a smoke screen. This is an anti-war zealot group, not really a church.

blady

March 4th, 2011
8:44 am

MiltonMan, reach up, way up, and try to grasp reality!

Get It Right

March 4th, 2011
8:44 am

Wow! CT managed a blog without cut & paste.

I’m wondering how CT manages to balance her defence of the first amendment with her rants against the Tea Party voicing their opinions. I’m supposing that labeling them as racists is her right. Just because she has the right, that doesn’t make her right.

Keep up the good fight!

March 4th, 2011
8:46 am

DDR — from the Syllabus of the Court Decision. Snyder filed a diversity action against Phelps, his daughters—who participated in the picketing—and the church (collectively Westboro) alleging, as relevant here, state tort claims of intentional infliction ofemotional distress, intrusion upon seclusion, and civil conspiracy.

The Free Speech Clause of the First Amendment can serve as a defense in state tort suits, including suits for intentional infliction of emotional distress. Hustler Magazine, Inc. v. Falwell, 485 U. S. 46, 50-51. Whether the First Amendment prohibits holding Westboro li-able for its speech in this case turns largely on whether that speech is of public or private concern, as determined by all the circumstancesof the case. “[S]peech on public issues occupies the ‘ “highest rung of the hierarchy of First Amendment values” ’ and is entitled to special protection.” Connick v. Myers, 461 U. S. 138, 145. Although theboundaries of what constitutes speech on matters of public concern are not well defined, this Court has said that speech is of public con-cern when it can “be fairly considered as relating to any matter of po-litical, social, or other concern to the community,” id., at 146, or when it “is a subject of general interest and of value and concern to thepublic,” San Diego v. Roe, 543 U. S. 77, 83–84. A statement’s argua-bly “inappropriate or controversial character . . . is irrelevant to the question whether it deals with a matter of public concern.” Rankin v. McPherson, 483 U. S. 378, 387. Pp. 5–7.

buck@gon

March 4th, 2011
8:46 am

Never fear Civil Cynthia,

You still can produce your senseless emotional rants about “lunatics”, “racists”, “bigots” and …. well, you know all those things better than I, don’t you?… and then on the same page you can continue to preen about your own civility, while making shall we say, the “ironclad” demand that others be civil out of respect to you.

Yes, truly a government of laws has its ugly side.

Keep up the good fight!

March 4th, 2011
8:47 am

The “special protection” afforded to what Westboro said, in thewhole context of how and where it chose to say it, cannot be overcomeby a jury finding that the picketing was “outrageous” for purposes of applying the state law tort of intentional infliction of emotional dis-tress. That would pose too great a danger that the jury would punishWestboro for its views on matters of public concern. For all these reasons, the jury verdict imposing tort liability on Westboro for inten-tional infliction of emotional distress must be set aside

RambleOn84

March 4th, 2011
8:47 am

Yep, the right to free speech is wonderful and also sometimes tragic…

Of course, if you are at a political rally you are not afforded free speech. Remember the “Don’t tase me, bro!” guy? He was removed from a John Kerry open question session for asking the wrong type of question.

This kind of thing happens all the time, and strangely, it seems that politicians have their own view of “free speech” when they appear in public.

If they want to continue to enforce “selective free speech,” why can’t this also apply to funerals? Is there any place more solemn and inappropriate for this type of behavior than a funeral?

Of course, I believe everyone should have free speech at ALL times, but if you (like our politicians) believe it shouldn’t always apply, then funerals are a perfect place to restrict it.

Ragnar Danneskjöld

March 4th, 2011
8:48 am

Dear Debbie @ 8:41, good morning, unfortunately that was the case the Supreme Court decided. That the father was not entitled to the $10 million the jury awarded.

midtownguy

March 4th, 2011
8:49 am

The “homosexuals” turned Westboro into a joke at Pride Festivals. “Look, there is Rev. Phelps, let’s go have our photo taken standing in front of him!” They recognized him for what he is, a clown.

I realize that funerals are not a social event and certainly no place for levity. But the more publicity this jackass gets, the more funerals he will attend. Those who file lawsuits against his protests and the media who cover them are playing right into his hands.

RambleOn84

March 4th, 2011
8:49 am

Of course, lost in all this is that this group, the Westboro “Baptist Church,” was founded by a man who has absolutely no scruples and has been accused in the past of actually being anti-Christian and using these demonstrations as a way to fuel hate towards true Christians.

It is only speculation, but it certainly would make sense to me…

Zzz

March 4th, 2011
8:50 am

Where do we draw the line ? Is the “N” word now constitutionally protected ?? Can I yell “Fire” in a crowed theater !!Is all speech protected !!! We need clarification.

Mark L

March 4th, 2011
8:54 am

I’m going to say something I’ve said maybe once or twice before ever.

Cynthia, I agree with you.

Wow!

RambleOn84

March 4th, 2011
8:56 am

midtownguy,
That is what people should do, but it is much more difficult to do that at something like a funeral where emotions are so high. I am a rational man, but if it were my son’s funeral and those jackasses showed up, I’d be going to jail.

No Free Speach on Peachtree

March 4th, 2011
8:56 am

I have been banned from nearly all the AJC blogs because I am the voice of the silent moronity. I should sue the AJC for violating my institutional rights.

Tychus Findlay

March 4th, 2011
8:56 am

As I stated on Jay’s blog the other day, a gun toting nutjob could blow these people away in broad daylight with 100’s of witnesses and you’d never find a jury that would convict. Their speech is protected, but that does not absolve them from the consequences of exercising their right to assemble and free speech. It’s a matter of time before their social leprosy escalates into a violent backlash.

kayaker 71

March 4th, 2011
8:56 am

CT,

Not one word from you regarding the speech made by the Black Panther thug who stated in no uncertain terms his distaste for white people. I even posted the entire speech on your blog and it was deleted. Wonder what would happen if I showed up at the entrance of one of the more delightful project housing units in our fair city of Macon and inserted black instead of white into the same speech? Wonder how long my “free speech, protected by the federal government” would last when the guns and knives were drawn? And my retribution would never make the papers or certainly would not show up on your blog column. There is free speech and then there is free speech, CT. Depends on who is saying it.

RxDawg

March 4th, 2011
8:56 am

I usually don’t, but this time I agree with you Cynthia. I just can’t fathom the putrid hate these “christian” people are spewing.

Cloudodust

March 4th, 2011
8:57 am

There is a dividing line between common sense free speech and the legality of such. The blind lady tips the scale toward the legality of such and as much as I dislike it, CT is right (mark this day CT, we agree). We’ve all heard the phrase coined Hate Speech, we’ve seen within court cases and examples in the arena of public opinion based on the accusation that this type of action can preclude physical violence from either side of the battle line. In the case of the Westboro NOT-Baptist Church, what we have are a few loonies who show us the idiots of the world trump sanity nearly every time. Sadly, there are more loonies that try to tie the Westboro loon example to any other disenting organization with a bullhorn attempting to shout-down common sense. IMHO, God is unhappy with the Westboro thugs and will give them what they deserve.
For those of you that don’t know, Albert Snyder was charged with having to pay the legal expenses for the Westboro bunch. A guy named Bill O’Reilly offered Mr. Snyder his personal check to cover the expenses. Sanity has a heart. Hate does not…

Jimmy62

March 4th, 2011
8:57 am

Yeah, it’s funny how you defend these guys, while trashing the Tea Party every day and talking about how something needs to be done about the violent rhetoric from Sarah Palin and the like.

Phelps is a joke, I can’t believe anyone follows him.

red herring

March 4th, 2011
8:58 am

the westboro lunatics should have no rights at a religious service such as a funeral. the only funeral they should have an absolute “right” to attend is their own. leave it to the left to get this wrong. when an attorney general says he is not comfortable prosecuting “his people” that is as racist as it gets and he needs the same treatment any white attorney general would have received… a swift firing. ragnar makes some good points however as usual with ms. tucker and this administration common sense left the building along with elvis….

No Free Peaches Either

March 4th, 2011
8:59 am

No Free Peaches either. In face there’s no free lunch anywhere.

Keep up the good fight!

March 4th, 2011
8:59 am

Tychus….. again your post is less direct and a little more coded than the stupid reprehensible post of Zero, but “you’d never find a jury that would convict” is incorrect. When are people going to stop suggesting that violence and guns are an appropriate response to WORDS?

DP

March 4th, 2011
9:00 am

What’s good for the Goose is good for the Gander….let former military personel picket Westboro Church members and their families when having a funeral and see what they think. I served in the US Army for many years and guess what…I think the Justices got it right.

1st Amendment

March 4th, 2011
9:01 am

I think the AJC lunatics have more rights than they do! Let the Westboro bunch march against the Jews or Muslims and see what you bunch of lunatics do? You’ll be slinging names so quick your head commie head’s will spin.

Throw Peaches at Speaches

March 4th, 2011
9:02 am

You can’t yell “moron” in a crowded blog. Just like you can’t yell, “Fire” on a submarine during a red alert exercise when the missiles are armed.

granny godzilla

March 4th, 2011
9:02 am

Get It Right

March 4th, 2011
8:44 am
Wow! CT managed a blog without cut & paste.

I’m wondering how CT manages to balance her defence of the first amendment with her rants against the Tea Party voicing their opinions. I’m supposing that labeling them as racists is her right. Just because she has the right, that doesn’t make her right.

“her rants against the Tea Party voicing their opinions” actually her “rants” as you call them weren’t againt the Tea Party
voicing their opinions – she was challenging the opinions themselves

I don’t have a problem with your ranting, but I usually think your rants are dead wrong.

That’s supporting your first amendment rights….

Look to the Peach!!

March 4th, 2011
9:03 am

There’s no shortage of Bloody Bookman trolls here.

The middle ages called. They want their Tea Party back.

RxDawg

March 4th, 2011
9:06 am

Ragnar Danneskjöld
March 4th, 2011
8:37 am

That was a good post. Made me rethink my stand also. Make no mistake I do not want these evil people at soldier’s funerals. But I understand the rational of allowing people to speak out, no matter the subject of their rhetoric. But still, these people are flat out disrupting the civility of our country. Laws are there to protect our civility. I should be able to walk down the street without being harrassed. And I certainly should be able to grieve my dead ________ under the same peace. Maybe it’s the lesser of two evils to have a specific law to prohibit it.

kayaker 71

March 4th, 2011
9:08 am

So, CT, let’s see how fast you delete some blogger’s opinion that you feel is “off base” or “unfit” to be here, even though the poster has points of opinion that are valid and true. Your definition of “free speech” is one that you feel is appropriate to be in the column, not some Westboro Baptist version of what free speech should be. If you really believed in what you say, people like Andy would have never been banned from this blog. You can’t have it both ways.

Gm

March 4th, 2011
9:13 am

MiltonMan: If the President of the United States is Bozo then we can call you Milton the trailer hick,:
Lets face it your tea Party idiots are nothing but a bunch of racist, anti Obama haters, where is the support for middle class in Ws ? they are bunch of frauds.
I will take the Egyptian protesters any day over you hypocrites any day, by the way Milton the hick, Bush administration decided to drop the charges on the black panthers not Obama, but when you listen to bigots like high school drop out Rush Limbaugh to get your news you dont know any better.

RambleOn84

March 4th, 2011
9:18 am

Bush and Obama are the same President…check out their policies…identical right down the line…but keep on fighting amongst yourselves, it’s what they want.

Contractor

March 4th, 2011
9:19 am

Just wanted you to know your bluff was called on illegal immigration in this state, Tucker. Looks as if the ball is finally rolling, know we get to see if it works.

midtownguy

March 4th, 2011
9:21 am

Ramble On: I agree with you that funerals are a place where emotions are high. Remember that it was Westboro’s protest at Matthew Shapard’s funeral (he was the young gay man beaten to death and hung on a fence) that put them in the public eye.

Eubieful O'Sheet

March 4th, 2011
9:24 am

Yep, CT can call anybody whatever she wants to call them.

BUT nobody can call CT a (word we can’t even say anymore – starts with “n”).

So clearly we do have a “protected class” of people in America.
People who are more sacrosanct than those exalted personages CT lists in her opening spiel.
People who are more inviolate than the men and women who died to give the loons of Westboro the right to say almost anything they want to.
Yep, it’s now legal for the Wesboro loons to “do their thing”. Just as long as they don’t use the word that NOBODY is allowed to say anymore.
Will America ever regain rationality?

1st amendment

March 4th, 2011
9:24 am

Being called a racists is becoming a badge of honor. It usually means that a person is a good American that is willing to speak his/her mind. Usually speaking out against wrong doing, special treatment that liberals expect, or even speaking against those that have a total lack of class. If it weren’t for double standards, liberals wouldn’t have any standards at all! I exercise my free speech. Go ahead call me a racists!

Jethro

March 4th, 2011
9:24 am

I thought that Justice Alito was eloquent in his dissent. Ultimately, though, the Supremes got it right. WBC has the right to be detestable scum and to make idiots of themselves in public. I do feel for Albert Snyder, and I think he deserves some satisfaction for his anguish, but not at the sacrifice of our freedom. America isn’t easy.

Comes a case out of Indiana in which a judge ruled that the Indiana Star Tribune et el must reveal the identity of anonymous sources to their online blogs. Think the judge’s name is Keith. I think it’ll be interesting to see this wind through the courts. On the one hand, I wonder if people would be less snipish with their comments if they did not have their blanket of anonymity. At least the Westboro Baptist folk put a face to the hate they spew. On the other hand, is it right for us to take away that blanket and thus affect the discourse of free speech? I think this would make a good op-ed panel discussion.

RambleOn84

March 4th, 2011
9:26 am

I do remember, and that was every bit as vile and disgusting as what they do now.

I really am convinced that it is all a big effort to have our free speech rights diminished and actual religions villified.

Check out Phelps’ record before the whole “Westboro Baptist Church” crap started…he was into fighting Jim Crow laws and fighting for separation of church and state.

Does it make any sense that someone who supported integration and separation of church and state would now use his “Church” to push anti-gay views on others?