"With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in; to bind up the nation's wounds; to care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow and his orphan - to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace, among ourselves, and with all nations."
— Lincoln's Second Inaugural Address, March 4, 1865
Matthew’s father and Reverend Phelps.
We will soon have the United States Supreme Court ruling on the Matthew Snyder case. Two weeks ago, a freshman at the University of Oklahoma wrote an opinion column for the student newspaper. I think he was wise beyond his teenage years so I am reprinting it here:
Monday, January 24, 2011
There’s little disagreement that the Westboro Baptist Church is one of the most vile and offensive hate groups in America. Despite membership of fewer than 100 people, the fire and brimstone cult has achieved nationwide notoriety for its picketing of soldiers’ funerals and the colorful signs that its members hold, which carry phrases like “God Hates Fags” and “Thank God For 9/11.”
But as despicable as this is, there is one way in which it actually benefits society: radical groups like Westboro regularly check the boundaries of free expression.
This was most evident 2 1/2 weeks ago in Arizona, the same day of the shooting that claimed the lives of six innocent people outside a Tucson supermarket.
Pastor Fred Phelps, the cult’s leader, announced the unthinkable: His congregation would picket the funeral of each victim, beginning with that of 9-year-old Christina Green. A press release elaborated saying, “God sent the shooter to deal with idolatrous America.”
Westboro had struck nerves before, but none quite so raw as this one. Lawmakers sprang into action and in a matter of days the Arizona Legislature had unanimously passed, with minimal debate, a law prohibiting protests within 300 feet of funeral services.
The measure, modeled after an Ohio law, was widely applauded and will likely be adopted by other states as well. However, there is legitimate cause for concern, even if nobody wants to side with the bigots to point it out.
After introducing it as a bill, Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer said the law would protect mourners from “emotional terrorism.” Other lawmakers echoed concern for the emotional state of the attendees. Keep in mind that this law is a limitation on free speech that calls for government intervention.
I’m sure many people will disagree with me simply because this law holds Westboro at bay, so let’s strip away the context and examine the philosophy at work behind it: The government can impose limits on free speech to protect someone’s feelings from getting hurt.
It may sound bare or oversimplified, but that’s fundamentally what the law does. It’s an invitation for someone to cry when something is said they find disagreeable. Imagine the harm this philosophy could inflict in another context now that it has already been validated in this one. It goes against the democratic spirit to give emotional feedback so much credit, especially when it differs for everyone and is so easily faked.
More on the speech itself, this lapse in judgment raises questions about the government targeting a specific point-of-view. Consider, if this was a Jewish group protesting the funeral of a neo-Nazi, would we feel nearly as compelled to pass legislation to prevent it?
I’m guessing not. In the end, it doesn’t matter what politicians say about a law, only the state of mind that spawned it. As uncomfortable as it might feel allowing Westboro to exist, we cannot legislate our disapproval. The freedom of speech exists to protect unpopular speech, and one of the hallmarks of unpopular speech is the tendency to hurt someone’s feelings.
The lawmakers who supported this legislation probably had good intentions. Either they were driven by compassion for the victims’ families or they took offense to Westboro’s utter disregard for decency. It doesn’t matter, though; we need to take this on principle so this harmful philosophy isn’t applied in any future law.
States considering similar legislation to combat Westboro are advised to resist the temptation. As for Arizona and states like Oklahoma that already have similar funeral laws in place, citizens are responsible to keep a closer eye out for this philosophy before it shows up again, next time in a less palatable form.
Westboro Baptist Church isn’t worth giving up any degree of our liberties, even if it is just one. When a law is passed that in any way limits free expression, we have the responsibility to be critical, regardless of how other people might feel about it.
— Steven Zoeller
The American way to defeat Westboro is to form a wall of black leather, standing firmly under waving colors, between them and their target. If the ruling disappoints the Snyders, I say “bring ‘em on”.
back to ALL MISSIONS