The Westboro Baptist Church is among the nastiest of the nutty, publicity-demanding evangelical churches that litter the American landscape. Its leader Fred Phelps makes Pastor Terry Jones seem positively calm, measured and rational. Phelps is deeply anti-Semitic, having in 1996 organized a picket of Washington’s Holocaust Memorial Museum claiming that
Whatever righteous cause the Jewish victims of the 1930s–40s Nazi Holocaust had, (probably minuscule, compared to the Jewish Holocausts against Middle Passage Blacks, African Americans and Christians—including the bloody persecution of Westboro Baptist Church by Topeka Jews in the 1990s), has been drowned in sodomite semen. American taxpayers are financing this unholy monument to Jewish mendacity and greed and to filthy fag lust.
Phelps has also organized pickets outside Catholic churches describing Catholics as ‘vampires’ and ‘paedophiles’.
Westboro’s principal hatred, however, is of gays. Its main website (which currently appears to be down) is called GodHatesFags.com. It claims that all the ills in the world are linked to the spread of homosexuality and demands that homosexuality should be made a capital crime. The Church has taken to picketing funerals of soldiers killed in Iraq with placards proclaiming ‘God Hates Fags’, ‘Thank God for Dead Soldiers’ and ‘Thank God for 9/11’. ‘Our attitude toward what’s happening with the war’, Phelps has said,’ is [that] the Lord is punishing this evil nation for abandoning all moral imperatives that are worth a dime.’
One of the funerals picketed was that of Matthew Snyder, a US Marine killed in Iraq in 2006. Snyder’s father subsequently launched a law suit against the Church and won a $5 million verdict against Phelps for emotional distress and invasion of privacy. That verdict was later overturned in a federal court. Earlier this month, the US Supreme Court ruled by 8-1 that the First Amendment protected the right of the Church to hold protests even in such distressing circumstances. Chief Justice John Roberts who delivered the majority opinion, wrote that
Westboro’s funeral picketing is certainly hurtful and its contribution to public discourse may be negligible. But Westboro addressed matters of public import on public property, in a peaceful manner, in full compliance with the guidance of local officials.
Roberts insisted that
The fact that Westboro spoke in connection with a funeral … cannot by itself trump the nature of Westboro’s speech… Westboro’s signs, displayed on public land next to a public street, reflect the fact that the church finds much to condemn in modern society.
Roberts observed that the protestors had not disrupted the funeral – they had been kept well away from and out of sight of the memorial service. He added that ‘Whether the First Amendment prohibits holding Westboro liable for its speech in this case turns largely on whether that speech is of public or private concern.’ And while the messages on the placards of the Westboro protestors ‘may fall short of refined social or political commentary, the issues they highlight – the political and moral conduct of the United States and its citizens, the fate of our nation, homosexuality in the military, and scandals involving the Catholic clergy – are matters of public import’, and so are protected under the First Amendment. Speech cannot be stifled just because it is outrageous and distasteful to some or even most people:
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. 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. That choice requires that we shield Westboro from tort liability for its picketing in this case.
I agree with the Supreme Court decision. However distressing or despicable these protests may be, banning them would be to a blow to free speech. Yet it is not difficult to understand the anguish of the family or their outrage at having an intimate, painful, private moment violated, even if the protestors were not actually visible or audible. It’s extraordinary, then, that Snyder’s mother, Julie Francis, should write a moving letter this week explaining why she supported the Court’s decision:
Five years ago, my son’s father asked me to join him in bringing a lawsuit against the Westboro Baptist Church. I declined for the following reasons:
I truly believe this is an issue of free speech. I do not like it, and I do not like the WBC, but it is free speech. I was certain that in the end, all that would be accomplished was that a bigger voice would be given to a relatively unknown group of people. I felt it would give them the platform and spotlight they had been seeking. And it did.
I did not want the perception that Matt’s funeral was a circus. Although their words are disgusting, we did not see the members of WBC, and Matt’s funeral was a beautiful and loving tribute to a young man well loved and well respected. The WBC, sickening as they are, were not able to overshadow the beauty of our dear beloved Matt and of those who surrounded him with grace, honor, dignity and love. But people who were not even there believe that these seven insignificant members of an insignificant church were able to “ruin” this tribute — this saying goodbye — to our Matt.
Most important, I wanted my son Matthew to be left to rest in peace. I wanted him remembered for all he was. I did not want him remembered as just a young Marine associated continuously with a vile and vicious so-called church. Matthew deserves much better than that.
The Supreme Court decision came down on March 2, in an 8-1 decision, on the side of free speech. March 3rd marked five years since we lost our dear Matt. I love him and miss him. I am glad this didn’t happen on the anniversary of his death, and I am glad free speech has prevailed.
It’s been a tough road because it can be misconstrued by those who don’t know me and think that I support those vile people. That has never been the case. I love my son: As a Marine, Matt was entrusted with defending and protecting our rights, our liberties, our Constitution.
I hope this ends it; I hope Matt can now be allowed to rest peacefully, no longer continually associated with these despicable people. I am glad the Supreme Court has ruled with the law, with the nation, with the Constitution. In America, you cannot take away the right of free speech, no matter how vile. I do believe our blessed Matt would feel the same way.
Thank you to each of you who has understood my position. It has meant very much to me.
It must have taken considerable courage and will for Julie Francis to put aside not simply family loyalties buy also her inevitable sense of outrage at the Church’s actions. The most necessary defence of free speech is at the point where it is most difficult or painful to do so. That is why Julie Francis’ stance is both courageous and important.