Defending (Hateful) Speech: Westboro Baptist Church and the First Amendment

Voltaire famously wrote, “I do not agree with what you have to say, but I’ll defend to the death your right to say it.” After last Wednesday’s Westboro Baptist Church Supreme Court Ruling, it is with sadness but certainty that Voltaire’s words are evoked.

In 2006, the Westboro Baptist Church protested the Westminster, Maryland funeral of Matthew Snyder, a soldier killed in Iraq. Snyder’s father filed a lawsuit against the family of leader Fred Phelps, citing the intentional infliction of emotional distress. Snyder won the case, receiving a settlement of $11 million dollars, a sum which was later reduced to $5 million. The ruling was overturned, however, by a Virginia federal appeals court, which cited the Phelps family’s First Amendment Rights.

On March 2nd, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of the Westboro Baptist Church, holding up the federal appeals court decision 8-1. Justice Samuel Alito dissented.

“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.” Chief Justice John Roberts wrote in the opinion. “On the facts before us, we cannot react to that pain by punishing the speaker.”

Though shocking, the defense of offensive speech by progressive movements and organizations is common. The ACLU has spoken on the behalf of the KKK numerous times, noting their dedication to neutrality and emphasizing the importance of free speech. In 1999, the ACLU defended the Klu Klux Klan after they were denied a permit to march peacefully at a parade in Cleveland, Ohio.  Cleveland’s mayor eventually relented, allowing the KKK to proceed.

“The mayor has taken a tough stand on a difficult issue,” said ACLU Legal Director Raymond Vasvari in a press statement. “No one expects his position to be popular, but the First Amendment extends its protection to even the most vile speech.”

To limit the speech rights of those with whom you do not agree is to essentially limit your own.  I can’t deny that the thought of the KKK marching the streets of Cleveland and the disciples of the Westboro Baptist Church hatefully picketing the funeral of a grieving family makes my stomach sick. But because these groups are allowed to express themselves, as hateful and hurtful that expression may be, I can say—without restraint—that Fred Phelps and his misguided family are a disgrace to the country that protects them and should feel deeply ashamed.