Freedom New Mexico
Free speech and the First Amendment prevailed Tuesday when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled 8-1 that the First Amendment protects even vile and hateful speech directed at gays, warriors and Catholics. It’s a sad-but-essential victory for anyone who believes that freedom requires legal protection of radical and outrageous ideas.
Westboro Baptist Church consists mostly of a large and close-knit family of lawyers, headed by once-great civil rights attorney Fred Phelps, a Primitive Baptist minister. The church pickets funerals of soldiers. Picketers warn that God hates people with same-sex attraction, using a hateful word to describe them. They tell us that God hates our country’s military personnel for protecting and defending a country abundant with homosexuals. They confront funeral mourners with giant colorful signs that say “Thank God for Dead Soldiers,” “Fags Doom Nations,” “You’re Going to Hell,” “Priests Rape Boys.” Pictures depict sexual positions.
Westboro picketers have tested the limits of the First Amendment more than any pornographer who has lived.
A Phelps family member defended picketers in the Supreme Court, in Snyder v. Phelps. Albert Snyder, father of a slain serviceman, filed the case after enduring a Westboro protest at his son’s funeral. A lower court awarded him $10.9 million for emotional distress. An appellate court reduced the award to $5 million. The Supreme Court ruling means Westboro owes nothing because the law protects extreme and hateful expression messages.
Writing for the eight-justice majority, Chief Justice John Roberts argued what seems obvious to most First Amendment scholars: “Such speech cannot be restricted simply because it is upsetting or arouses contempt.”
Roberts, a Catholic whom Westboro has ridiculed, explained that messages such as “Pope in Hell” fall short of refined social commentary. However, “the issues they highlight — the political and moral conduct of the United States and its citizens, the fate or our nation, homosexuality in the military, and scandals involving the Catholic clergy — are matters of public import.”
And this: “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. On the facts before us, we cannot react to that pain by punishing the speaker.”
Justice Samuel Alito, who’s also Catholic, was the lone dissenter. He was also the dissenter in a recent First Amendment ruling that defended depictions of animal cruelty. Alito argued in Snyder v. Phelps that the First Amendment does not protect the right of picketers to “brutalize” a person who isn’t even a public figure.
Americans of all religious and political persuasions should read the majority’s ruling and take it to heart. The free expressions of others are often capable of offending us, or bringing us great sorrow and pain. As sometimes seen in New Mexico, religious proselytizing serves as a source of sorrow and pain.
Freedom, which this country has defended for 235 years, isn’t always polite. Often, it’s ugly. It means tolerating diversity of religion and philosophies that offend. Seldom should distress — resulting from a brutal, painful or offensive message of any sort — be resolved at the courthouse. We can’t enjoy freedom and protection from that which offends us. It wasn’t so long ago that a great number of Americans were offended and shocked by gay pride parades, for example. If courts use the blunt force of law to silence messengers, speech becomes something much less than a free exercise. We want to be clear that the Clovis News Journal vehemently opposes the positions and actions of Phelps and his cohorts. That said, the First Amendment is a foundation of our liberty and was rightly protected by the Supreme Court.