Freedom of Speech gets its day in court on October 6th.


Westboro Baptist Church will have its day in court again on October 6th, 2010.

Westboro and its fundamentalist Christian pastor Fred Phelps often picket at the funerals of U.S. military killed overseas in war. Why? The pastor and the church believe that these military members are dying because of America’s sin. Pastor Phelps says “We don’t have to answer to anybody for our preaching.”

The group often taunts families with signs like “Your son is in hell.”

This is an ugly face of Christianity.

Westboro Baptist Funeral Protest

From USAToday: Westboro Baptist Funeral Protest

Read USAToday’s full story

I do not believe that free speech is open-ended nor should it be.

However, we must be careful in how we deal with free speech. It can be an avalanche once folks start putting any limits on speech.

For over 200 years we have wrestled with what freedom means.

While still a young country, only 10 years old, John Adams passed four bills that were really the nation’s first ‘Patriot Act’ in 1798, aka the ‘Alien and Sedition Acts’.

One of these acts was the ‘Sedition Act’ which defined treasonable activity as including the publication of “any false, scandalous and malicious writing,” as a high misdemeanor, punishable by fine and imprisonment.

Soon after its passage 25 men, most of them editors of Republican newspapers, were arrested and their newspapers forced to shut down. Some were fined $1000 (a monstrous sum in those days) and sent to prison for four months.

“Scandalous and malicious” pretty much covers so many things that in 200+ years we still have not figured out how to deal with freedom of speech to everyone’s satisfaction.

Thomas Jefferson lead the effort to repeal the ‘Sedition Act’ when he became president. As a Jeffersonian, I believe that freedom of speech is just that, no matter how ugly, and freedom of religion is just that, no matter how much we disagree on tenets, and I believe that freedom of … is freedom.

I’m sure however that we can get creative about how to deal with folks like Westboro Baptist Church. The first major step would be if other Christians spoke strongly in condemning the actions of the church, instead of remaining generally silent.

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7 Comments

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7 responses to “Freedom of Speech gets its day in court on October 6th.

  1. There is a difference between free speech and harassment. This “church” (which the Baptists churches have said is not part of the Baptist church at large) hatefully harasses people. I don’t know how a court could rule otherwise.

    • Free speech can be so challenging.

      Here is a commonly accepted legal definition of free speech: “… generally defined as a course of conduct which annoys, threatens, intimidates, alarms, or puts a person in fear of their safety.” (Source: http://definitions.uslegal.com/h/harassment/ )

      It could be said the Westboro Baptist only meets the definition in the annoying category.

      If they really do only meet the definition in the annoying category then the court will probably rely upon ‘freedom of speech’ as the standard unless it can be shown that they entered private property to undertake their their protests.

      I am soooooooooo glad that I am not this judge with this decision to make.

      If my choice I would shut them down under harrassment, but a court would be right to say that ‘annoying’ is too vague a standard when protest is conducted in public places.

  2. It’s difficult to keep emotions out of this. With 5,700+ Marines, soldiers, sailors, airmen killed since 9/11; Phelps’s deliberate tactics of targeting the funerals of these hero’s is callously designed for maximum publicity.

    But Phelps only played the free-speech card after he and his church lost a huge civil lawsuit that forced them into bankruptcy.

    Is this, appalling as Phelps and his dispicable fellow “christians” are, what free speech is all about?

    No. ‘free speech’ protects the rights of people to address public figures/ public events. The funeral of a Marine LCPL is neither.

    There are limits on ‘free speech’ – the ability to shout fire in a theatre, hate speech, and similar are disallowed.

    With 48 states joining this case against Phelps, hopefully on 6 Oct this christian extremeist will be finally muzzled

    • Andrew,

      Yes, hopefully “With 48 states joining this case against Phelps, hopefully on 6 Oct this christian extremeist will be finally muzzled”.

      A worthy alternative would be if American Christians suddenly showed up on the steps of Westboro Baptist and conducted 24/7 “Hate is not a Christian value” campaign.

  3. K

    Seriously?
    Westboro Baptist Church is a – wait for it… CHURCH! As such, they pay no taxes, and in order to maintain that status, rules are different. Now, if they want to give up that status, that’s cool.
    Also, military funerals aren’t generally held on public property.
    I could go on, but it seems like everyone’s minds are already made up.

    • Yes, Westboro Baptist is a church.

      Some rules are not different. They have First Amendment rights in both speech and in religion.

      The funerals in question have often been in a deceased soldier’s home cemetary. Sometimes those are public and sometimes not. Westboro normally abides by public and private rules.

      Even the entrance to a private cemetary must pass through a public road at the entrance to it. So the grieving family and friends must pass through or by the Westboro Baptist protestors one way or another.

  4. @K: No, Westboro Christian Church only pickets funerals at private ceremonies; they don’t have the cojones to appear at a public military burial ground such as Arlington.

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