Free speech continues to be tested in US

Lucy Berry News Editor

For years, the Westboro Baptist Church has plunged itself into the public eye, with anti-gay and anti-Semitic staged protests at the funerals of dead soldiers, Holocaust memorials or practically any institution or person who they feel advocates homosexuality or threatens the group’s primitive religious beliefs.

I cringe when I hear about the Kansas church’s daily protests and shudder when I attempt to understand their motivations in behaving the way they do. Though the church is relatively small and is composed primarily of founder Fred Phelps’ family members, the group has wasted no time in making its presence known in all 50 states.

In 2006, the Westboro Baptist Church picketed the funeral of Marine Lance Cpl. Matthew Snyder, a 20-year-old who was killed while serving in Iraq. The group, which believes military deaths are God’s way of punishing the U.S. for its tolerance of homosexuality, held signs with sayings like “God Hates Fags” and “Thank God For Dead Soldiers” at Snyder’s memorial service.

Snyder’s father sued for defamation, invasion of privacy and emotional distress after the funeral. The case ultimately reached the Supreme Court, which decided last week in an 8-to-1 decision that the group’s controversial protests were protected under the First Amendment.

During the ruling, Justice John G. Roberts called the Westboro funeral protest “hurtful” and went on to describe the power of speech, which “can stir people to action, move them to tears of both joy and sorrow, and-as it did here-inflict great pain.” Roberts said the U.S. must strive to protect the citizens’ right to free speech-even if it is of an unpopular opinion.

Justice Samuel Alito dissented, “Our profound national commitment to free and open debate is not a license for the vicious verbal assault that occurred in this case.” Alito argued that Albert Snyder, father of the dead soldier, is not a public figure and that the church turned Matthew’s funeral “into a tumultuous media event” that caused “severe and lasting emotional injury.”

As a reporter and a citizen of the United States, I agree with the Supreme Court’s ruling that the Westboro Baptist Church has the right to protest and that their defamatory language should be protected by the U.S. Constitution. As much as I despise the group and their message, I am a believer in free speech and would be beside myself if that right was taken from me.

In light of the horrible message the group promotes, it gives me hope to see counter protests from people across the country who have used their own First Amendment rights to attempt to put a stop to the church’s extremist demonstrations.

The Flor-Ala staff will have the opportunity to attend a special session called “Westboro speaks” where Margie Phelps, daughter of Westboro’s founder, will discuss the recent Supreme Court ruling with the First Amendment Center in New York City next week during the College Media Convention. Though most of us journalists respect the court’s free speech decision, I can’t promise things won’t get ugly while we’re there.