Stephanie's Political Arena

Critiques and Perspectives on National Politics and More

In Defense of “Free (Hate) Speech” over Honoring Fallen Heroes

with 12 comments

Photo by Brendan Smialowski of Getty Images North America (extracted from Zimbio.com)

With this blog, I try to refrain from taking too strong of a position on the issues and events that I write about in making a concerted effort to provide either a neutral overview on a topic or an alternative perspective not widely reported by the media.  For this particular post, however, I am taking a very strong position on a decision that was made today because of how close to home it is for me.

Having taken only two undergraduate courses in Constitutional Law and choosing to work in Washington, D.C. over going to law school after graduating from college, I am not a legal expert by any measure – especially when compared to the justices of the U.S. Supreme Court.  Yet, after today I’m left wondering why our Founding Fathers neglected to include a clause or some language within the First Amendment of the Constitution that spells out common decency when it comes to “free speech.”  Then again, I don’t think they ever imagined that one day there would be citizens lining up to protest at the funerals of fallen American soldiers.

I find it absolutely appalling and even shocking that by a ruling of 8-1, the Supreme Court decided today that hateful protests at military funerals are protected under the First Amendment of the Constitution (and should basically be allowed to continue – as they likely will). 

In delivering the majority’s opinion on Snyder v. Phelps, Chief Justice John Roberts wrote, “As in other First Amendment cases, the court is obligated to ‘make an independent examination of the whole record’ in order to make sure that ‘the judgment does not constitute a forbidden intrusion on the field of free expression.”  “The ‘content’ of Westboro’s signs plainly relates to broad issues of interest to society at large, rather than matters of ‘purely private concern.’”  Thus, the issues highlighted by these signs “are matters of public import.” “Given that Westboro’s speech was at a public place on a matter of public concern, that speech is entitled to ‘special protection’ under the First Amendment.”

In his dissenting opinion, Justice Samuel Alito wrote, “Our profound national commitment to free and open debate is not a license for the vicious verbal assault that occurred in this case.”  “In order to have a society in which public issues can be openly and vigorously debated, it is not necessary to allow the brutalization of innocent victims like the petitioner.”  I could not agree more.

Adding salt to the already wide open wound, The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, along with 21 other news organizations including The New York Times Company filed a brief in support of the Westboro Baptist Church.  Members of this church, as it is widely known, picket at military funerals such as the one held in honor of the late Matthew Snyder, a Marine who died while fighting in Iraq.  As a graduate student in journalism, I can understand the media’s unwavering support for the First Amendment; yet, I can’t help but question their actions with this case and allude to the irony. 

Having taken coursework taught by professional journalists, it’s practically been ingrained in me to take a neutral position in writing and reporting stories (and posting to this blog).  I’ve learned that in order to remain credible, journalists and reporters must not take a position or insert their personal views and beliefs within the context of the story they are delivering to their audiences.  Yet, in filing a brief in support of the Westboro Baptist Church, those 21 news organizations essentially took a position on the story surrounding the church and the Snyder family (not to mention other military families affected by this issue) as well as the Synder v. Phelps case.  How can this be considered “fair and balanced” reporting?  What precedent will this set for future cases involving the First Amendment and two different sides?  How will this affect the already tense relations between the media and the military?

I realize I’m inserting my own views into this issue, but I already disclosed in advance that I would.  Plus, this is a blog and not a professional media outlet that must uphold certain journalistic standards like The New York Times

I am the daughter of a Vietnam War veteran and the sister of an Operation Iraqi Freedom veteran, and both are recipients of the Purple Heart for combat-related injuries that nearly cost them their lives.  For me, this issue hits close to home because a lot of families out there were not as fortunate as mine in welcoming their heroes home alive.  As if the pain of losing their loved ones was not difficult enough, many of them had to endure the additional hardship of unwanted protesters showing up at their fallen soldiers’ funerals.  And all but one of the Supreme Court justices and 21 media organizations fully support allowing these particular protests to continue…

It also pains me to witness an additional twist of irony with the final ruling on Snyder v. Phelps: we send our brave soldiers to war in defense of our nation and to uphold freedom (such as freedom of speech), democracy, and institutions such as our government (including the Supreme Court).  Yet, there are times like today when those very institutions will not defend our soldiers and their honor – even when they don’t make it home alive.

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Written by Stephanie

March 3, 2011 at 6:17 am

12 Responses

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  1. Hi Stephanie…really well-written post. I certainly agree that the Westboro church’s actions are deplorable. It makes my stomach twist when I see photos of them and their signs, and it seems to me that whatever larger church they are affiliated with (some variety of Baptist I guess) would want to dissociate themselves as much as possible.

    I would, however, offer an alternative take on the brief filed by the Times and others. While it appears that they may be taking a side, I imagine that most newsroom folk have a similar reaction to Westboro as you and I. My sense is that the brief is intended more to support the open exchange of any and all ideas in the public forum. Along with maintaining a level of neutrality, this of course is another traditional ethic of journalism. Just a thought. (Granted, I haven’t read the brief…so I could be way off.)

    Tim O

    March 3, 2011 at 4:29 pm

    • Thank you for your comment and insight, Tom. I really appreciate it and understand your point of view. I can see that on the one hand, media folks like the New York Times are committed to protecting that 1st Amendment at all costs; yet, in situations like this I do wonder to what extent they can stick to that commitment without appearing to “take sides” or anything. Very interesting. Thanks again for reading and commenting! 🙂

      Stephanie

      March 9, 2011 at 4:53 am

  2. Thanks for sharing your story, Stephanie. I definitely agree that Westboro Baptist’s actions are both alarming and disturbing. I’m by no means a legal expert either, so my opinion is fairly limited.

    I do understand, however, the need to maintain first amendment rights if at all possible. I also recall the soldier’s father playing a role in this case, as he sought media attention after his son’s death. Sometimes injecting oneself into the public sphere makes slander and libel charges harder to prove. In addition, one cannot defame an individual after he or she has died (I forget which SC case established this, but it may have played a role, too).

    It’s really hard to set precedent with a case like this with the United States’ first amendment history and current laws in place. There’s simply too much flexibility with free speech (which I see as unfortunate abuse here, but generally a good thing otherwise).

    Members of the Phelps family know darn well what they’re doing and what their rights are, which makes the entire situation even more frustrating.

    I, too, am disappointed that people would act like this. But I would keep in mind that Westboro is a fringe group with a handful of members. The vast majority of people don’t tell others that God hates them for shock value.

    Marianne English

    March 4, 2011 at 10:34 pm

    • Thanks Marianne for your insight. I can see your point with regards to the family involving themselves to the extent of receiving a lot of media attention over this; yet, I think in a way they’re also standing up and providing a voice to the families of other deceased soldiers who have been through this but didn’t want to speak out publicly against it. And fellow soldiers would never speak out publicly either (my brother said that’s just the way they are – just focused on serving and not caring about any glamour or attention for their efforts).
      Obviously, you can’t legislate emotion or decide a case on the basis of emotion; yet, I just wish there was some way to stop certain people from inflicting even more pain on others who are suffering enough already.
      Thank you again for your comments!

      Stephanie

      March 9, 2011 at 5:00 am

      • I think your points are well-supported too, Stephanie. You have the added perspectives of your father and brother, which mean a lot.

        I agree in reducing unnecessary pain for those already suffering, too. I can’t imagine what it would feel like to have a loved one’s funeral protested…

        Hopefully, this high-profile case will be the last from Westboro. Despite free speech winning out here, maybe the controversy will inspire people to use their rights for positive causes.

        Wouldn’t it something if people peacefully protested Westboro? That would definitely be something to follow.

        Marianne English

        March 9, 2011 at 5:23 am

  3. Incidentally, here’s a fantastic op-ed piece from today’s Washington Post. Written by a woman who had her own brush with Westboro.

    http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2011/03/04/AR2011030402461.html

    Tim O

    March 4, 2011 at 10:48 pm

  4. Stephanie,

    Well written! This is one of those things that I just don’t like to think about, but they’re still out there. These people are literally inbred and have a freakishly spurious and scurrilous past (almost coined a new word there). I think John Stewart got it right, but of all the times for this Court to exhibit principled behavior.
    http://www.thedailyshow.com/watch/thu-march-3-2011/tales-of-principled-behavior

    Thankfully, the families victimized by these people have the Patriot Guard Riders. They are helpful in keeping the wbc people out of sight and mind at military funerals, and I was glad to see them in my hometown when the neighbor kid died in an ied attack. Personal feelings aside, this is a test of our democracy. It looks like we passed this time.

    Joe Doolen

    March 9, 2011 at 1:01 pm

    • Hey Joe!
      Thanks so much for your comment and I’m sorry to hear about your neighbor. I’m also glad we have the Patriot Guard Riders looking out for our military families in their times of grief and, of course, I don’t know what we would do without John Stewart. 🙂
      Thanks again and hope you’re having a great spring break!

      Stephanie

      March 17, 2011 at 2:12 am

  5. Terrific post on an important issue, Stephanie. I was surprised, frankly, that the Supreme Court decided this way with such a strong majority. It’s so sad that people challenge our right to free speech and free expression by such ugly behaviors. I remember when I was in college, the American Nazi Party insisted on a march through Skokie, Illinois, a largely Jewish suburb of Chicago as you know. I had relatives there and they were entirely traumatized. But again the court upheld the right of expression. It’s such a difficult balance and yet I’ve been in countries (mostly Arab) where the government decides absolutely what people are free to say. And as we all know that’s worse. I hate what Westboro does – but I understand the need to prevent such a nasty little group from damaging one of our greatest civil rights.

    Deborah Blum

    March 19, 2011 at 8:13 pm

    • Wow, I am very sorry to hear about the unfortunate experience your relatives endured. We are definitely fortunate to have the rights that we do, but it’s appalling to me at times to see the manner in which certain people take advantage of those rights and use them to inflict pain and trauma on innocent people. I agree that we definitely have it better here than in the Middle East. I saved e-mails my brother had sent me while serving in Iraq in which he described the “culture shock” of seeing how disrespected women were over there (they’re treated like “leftovers” as he put it).

      Stephanie

      March 21, 2011 at 4:29 am


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