Skepticism

Supreme Court Rules in Favor of Westboro Baptist Church

Remember that church that staged anti-gay protests at military funerals? The supreme court ruled in favor of their right to protest this morning, 8-1.

So, yay for free speech? Or boo for free speech in poor taste?

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47 Comments

  1. Foruntately, free speech doesn’t only cover things like “I like puppies” and “Ice is cold.”

    It also extends to the things we don’t agree on. Even things that are wrong.

    The good news is that it also protects me when I say that Westboro are motherfuckers.

  2. Clearly a win for free speech. I am glad they decided it the way they did, as I’m opposed to government regulation of speech* under any circumstances (aside from the obvious ‘fire in a movie theater’ sort of example).

    The way the people at Comiccon or Sundance responded to Westboro is the best approach. Ridicule them, don’t take them seriously, don’t give them the satisfaction of engaging them as though their claims had any merit or deserved anything other than rude laughter and perhaps pity for their clearly diminished mental capacities.

    But bar them from the right to speak their hateful idiotic minds? Never.

    *money != speech

  3. There are some “time and manner” restrictions on free speech, though. If I read that link right, the court upheld a ban of signs on public utility poles, and made some distance restrictions on abortion clinic protesters. I haven’t read the SC opinion, and with an 8-1 vote, I’m guessing they had solid reasoning for their decision. But I personally think that choosing the funerals of dead soldiers (who have historically fought for your right to free speech) is about the most tasteless way they could go about protesting gays.

  4. Boo for this ruling, which I don’t see a free speech issue. Free speech is free from government restriction, not free from (civil) consequences, in fact I’d say that being willing to face and own any consequences are integral to having free speech at all.

    This ruling didn’t strike down a government restriction on speech, like some local law saying “no protesting at funerals”, something I would agree with striking down. It says “Oh, you commit harassment and defamation on a regular basis? That’s ok, no civil consequences for that.”. That’s not ok.

  5. @Jake Lsewhere: For all their abhorrent views, WBC is very very very careful about staying just on the right side of the legal line, and not committing harassment (in the legal sense of the word, not the colloquial) or defamation. It’s why they say “Fags are going to hell” not “person X is going to hell”. Civil demonstrations, provided they stay within the law and get the proper permits are entirely in keeping with the First Amendment, and what this ruling says is essentially “You can’t sue someone for being a dick.”

    Which is an entirely reasonable ruling.

  6. Add me to the “Free speech means free speech, even for assholes” count. Correct ruling. Crappy/sad/infuriating repercussions.

    On a side note, I feel so bad for those kids in that picture. I try to think of them whenever I see Shirley Phelps. I can’t imagine what it would be like to be raised in that environment.

  7. Crappy/sad/infuriating *first* repercussions. On the other hand, this ruling means that the whole world will see WBC’s version of Christian “love” in all its glory. Those who see it can decide for themselves what it means. And maybe they’ll have to ask themselves who’s really in the wrong here.

  8. @revmatty: Except that we -can- sue people for being dicks, that’s the entire purpose for having harassment, defamation, libel, and slander laws. What this ruling said was in this -specific- case the WBC didn’t cross that legal line. Something that my non-lawyer self disagrees with.

  9. I like the ruling. WBC is nothing compared to the anti-abortion protesters that the law refuses to do anything about. I don’t mind people like WBC standing with signs because they are ridiculous and they aren’t killing people or following them home. If the courts refuse to do anything against groups with a history of murder and terrorism, I can’t imagine how they could even be concerned with WBC.

  10. As much as I detest Freddy and his crew, I think this is an important STFU for people who say “teh geyz r sylenzing us hoo disagreee wit geynass!”

    Just look at them, smack them really hard, and ask why are they taking stupid pills?

  11. The WBC is a gift to atheists that keeps on giving. They provide an excellent example of why the bible is the hate-filled rubbish we all know it to be. It is pretty easy to engage a casual christian in conversation about how horrible the WBC people are. Once you have them on the hook you can remind them that if they read their bible, they would know that the WBC people *are* following the word of their lord and angry god. When they start to retreat, hit them with an evil quote or two and then remind them that their jealous god wants 100%, that casual faith is worse than no faith at all and destined to fire. If they are now looking confused instead of calling you satan, ask them why god does not heal amputees and direct them to that wonderful web site.

    I have had this conversation many times. Book stores and grocery stores are target rich environments. Fight back. Fight dirty. Kick them in their deities.

  12. I am all for this and all for WBC going at it all they like. Free speech does indeed mean speech we don’t like, and it also means we can just unleash on these idiots. They are the worst of the worst and say aloud the things that so many chickenshits are thinking anyway. It’s nice to have some of them being stupid/arrogant/honest enough to just admit it. They are painting a target on all the right scumbags and zealots.

    Now if only these was a similarly obvious and open version of the whole KKK/Tea Party bunch. A lot of crossover w/ WBC I am sure, but it’d be great if some of them could just spit it out like WBC do, and simply say, “we don’t care about the economy in fact, we just don’t like that uppity n-word telling us what to do.” C’mon “Tea Party”, FACEPLANT like Westboro does regularly!

  13. I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it. ~Voltaire

    And we’re still talking about this over 200 years later. It goes to show how persistently diligent we have to be to protect our right to free speech. I am happy to see that the system worked!

  14. @Jake Lsewhere: I should clarify, you can’t *successfully* sue someone for being a dick. In the case of WBC, pretty much the entire adult component of the church are lawyers. They are extremely precise in their use of language specifically to avoid being able to be successfully sued for harassment, slander, libel, etc.

    And that’s the free speech principle that is the point here. Provided they are not crossing the legal lines, they are entirely within their rights to say whatever awful things they want. And I’m entirely within mine to point and laugh and tell everyone that their claims are moronic and hateful and everyone should ridicule those claims.

    Their approach is clever in that one of their goals is to so infuriate opponents that they goad counter-protesters into crossing a legal line. There is nothing Phelps would like more than for someone to punch him in the face. The combination of martyrdom and an easy win civil suit against his assailant would make him truly ecstatic.

  15. For what it’s worth, the entire family are lawyers. Fred is a lawyer, a civil rights lawyer if I’m not mistaken, and he required his children to attend law school as well.

    They are very well aware of what their limits are.

  16. Alito’s single dissenting opinion has me bothered. Not more bothered that WBC is doing ‘This”, but just about equal.
    First, this is how Roberts’ closed the Court’s remarks:
    “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. On the facts before us, we cannot react to that pain by punishing the speaker. As a Nation we have chosen a different course—to protect even hurtful speech on public issues to ensure that we do not stifle public debate. That choice requires that we shield Westboro from tort liability for its picketing in this case.”

    Those are pretty dang noble words. That words are words and debate is debate and even the cruelest of sentiments are not tangible things. The most severe words have to be protected, as they are no more less good than words of praise. They are, at most, ideas for each individual to judge for themselves or, at the very least, noise.

    This is the focus of Alito’s dissent: [The dissenting opinion] points out that the speech, like an assault, seriously harmed a private individual. Indeed, the state tort of “intentional infliction of emotional distress” forbids only conduct that produces distress “so severe that no reasonable man could be expected to endure it,” and which itself is “so outrageous in character, and so extreme in degree, as to go beyond all possible bounds of decency, and to be regarded as atrocious, and utterly intolerable in a civilized community.”

    That is nonsense. Ideas and words cannot hurt, at least not if you do not and take personally and let them. WBC hold up signs that say terrible and sad things. They do this to hurt and provoke, but, again, only if you let them.

    When I was in college, WBC came for the opening night of a production of the Laramie Project. Various student groups, as well as unaffiliated and uninvolved (Hi) students, protested the protesters. There was good spirit and general, for lack of a better word, happiness at the counter-protest. People saying, “Yes,” because that is an equal idea to other people saying, “No.” Which side is which in that example doesn’t matter because that is just what a dialogue is.

    I would love love love for the Court to hear, like someone mentioned above, a 1st Amendment case against the anti-choice folks. There, the situation is different. The meaning of words are shifted, communication going from that dialogue to actual intimidations and clear threats and not in terms of public discourse, but in a legal setting of a personal, and even medical, choice.

  17. @revmatty: Yeah, it’s pretty noticeable, when you think about it, how they couch their language in a way that it’s never directed at anyone specifically, how it’s always “God” doing the “hating”, judging and killing and how they never actually directly engage those they are protesting. In the immortal words of Admiral Ackbar “It’s a trap!”

  18. Stacey,

    I don’t really like this ruling, but it is in line with the constitution and therefor I don’t think we should challenge it. The court probably did the right thing. Its probably better this way. The right Free speech is something very important and should not be infringed, even when it comes to hate mongers.

    There was a group of conservative counter protesters known as Protest Warrior, that would show up at leftist peace rallies to counter the message of the leftist protesters. I don’t know if they’re still around. Even through I often agree with Protest Warrior’s positions, the groups they counter protested usually where not as hate filled as the Westboro Baptist church, but this same strategy has been used with other groups whose beliefs are usually more inline with the Westboro baptist church. When Neo Nazis and klansmen protest, there are often anti racist counter protesters on the scene. Maybe when the Westboro baptist church holds one of its funeral crashes, there could be pro gay rights counter protesters their to counter their hate filled message.

  19. It’s a good ruling – the correct response to disgusting speech is more speech (in rebuttal). I wish more people really understood what “free speech” means – that it means freedom from government/police intrusion, and IN NO WAY suggests you have a right to be free from criticism, ridicule, or social ostracism from your fellow citizens in response to your expressed views. I am so sick of hearing whining from assholes that their “free speech rights are being violated” when other people are utilizing their own rights to publicly disagree and say “you’re a dick.”

    (note I’m not saying people *here* are making that mistake, they’re not)

  20. I don’t think anyone wants to overturn the first amendment, and everyone seems to understand that the whole purpose of free speech is for people to be able to say disagreeable things.

    The discussions I’ve seen outside this forum don’t focus on what WB said, but instead where legislators draw the line on legal exercise of your right to free speech. For example, instead of choosing to show their disapproval of gays by picketing on a sidewalk, they’re targeting the funerals of individuals.

    A quick search for the elements of harassment yields “a course of conduct directed at a specific person that causes substantial emotional distress in such a person and serves no legitimate purpose”. So am I right in interpreteting that the only element that’s not satisfied is that they do have a legitimate purpose: their right to speak freely about their views? In other words, if they had targeted these grieving people in a similarly negative way, but without speaking their views about gays, could they have been charged with harassment?

    As a couple people mentioned above, WB clearly knows what the legal limits are and is walking the line. If they weren’t, the ruling likely wouldn’t have been so close to unanimous. But is the law correct to protect activists’ right to target individuals like this? I don’t know…and when I say that, I really mean I don’t know. I have no solid opinion on this one way or another – you guys are helping me work through it.

  21. @Stacey: My understanding (IANAL (I Am Not A Lllama)) is that the generic nature of their protests is what protects them. They don’t target the person who died, they target classes of people instead. Their position, which I consider entirely disingenuous but legally defensible, is that they aren’t directing their protest at the subject of the funeral but rather at the media who will show up. This of course ignores the fact that 99% of the time the media only shows up because of the protest.

  22. @revmatty: I see what you’re saying about targeting classes of people. They are carefully choosing their words (e.g. God hates fags, not Westboro Baptist hates your dead gay son Timmy).

    I don’t understand the media thing – targeting the media? Like God hates the media?

    I am not a llama either (haha), but it seems to me that they target the subject by choosing his funeral as a place to protest homosexuality, because he was gay. No? I know I must be wrong – the supreme court says so! But I still don’t completely get it.

  23. @Stacey:

    They’re not protesting the individual either. They’re protesting something bigger.

    A few years ago, there was a shooting at Northern Illinois University, near my home. Westboro showed up to protest because NIU was asking for it because of letting some gay rights speaker give a talk in like 2004 or something.

    They were allowed to protest a certain distance away from the funerals and had to remain on public property.

    Brilliantly, one of the suburbs called out all of their snowplows for the day and parked them on the street in front of the church, blocking the view of the WBC from the mourners.

    I wish more towns would do this.

  24. If I compare this to protests outside of abortion clinics: those protesters aren’t targeting individuals because they’re protesting the services that the clinic provides – they don’t even know who’s going to be going in and out of the clinic. But, to me, if they chose a specific person (or people) that they knew had had an abortion, and protested outside their house, that would be different.

    And similarly, if they were protesting a funeral home that only held funerals for gays, that would be different.

  25. I agree that they are in any rational understanding of the situation targeting the individual and the loved ones of the deceased. Law is however not necessarily rational :) I was speaking in a legal sense (to the best of my understanding of the law) rather than a ‘normal human being’ sense.

    What I mean by targeting the media is they target events and promote themselves in a way to generate as much media coverage as possible which matters more to them than the event they are protesting.

  26. @revmatty: I think you’re exactly right. Like Elyse & you said, since they are lawyers they know exactly how to skirt the law. I just listened to a synopsis of the decision on TV and it said the protest was declared legal because they were protesting a broad issue on public property. Like you said, that isn’t congruent with my normal-human-being belief that they are targeting individuals by protesting at a particular person’s funeral.

  27. I agree, yay for free speech. If nobody talked about/reported on/blogged about them…then what? They’re a fun freakshow to read about/see on T.V., so I guess they’re (kind of like Sarah Palin) good for ratings, but really, if everyone just agreed to ignore them…

  28. @Stacey: I think a little of the confusion between Stacey and revmatty is the use of the word “targeting”. I think it is clearer if you were to say they are targeting the person who died (or their family and friends), but are addressing the media.

    They actually don’t care (it seems) whether the people attending the funeral see them, as long as the media show up and give them air-time.

  29. @ Steve in MI
    “On the other hand, this ruling means that the whole world will see WBC’s version of Christian “love” in all its glory. Those who see it can decide for themselves what it means. ”

    Don’t worry, we do and we have. Unfortunately we tend to think that 90% of Yanks are fuckwits. The other 10% are really smart and do all the work. Obviously the people on this site are clearly in that 10% and for that reason I support to the hilt you guys on the frontlines in the worldwide fight for logic and reason.

    Sort of a modern type of domino theory I guess. Hope this causes no offence to the great folks here, but it needs to be said.

  30. @Jack99: I might dispute whether it’s 90%, but from my perspective inside the Belly of the Beast, it can be really frustrating. Of the 4 people I work with, one is totally into woo, one is a climate change denier, and one is a law-and-order type.

    As for the ruling, I’m no worshiper of the Constitution or Bill of Rights (the Second Amendment could be repealed tomorrow, and it wouldn’t be soon enough for me), but I do like free expression, even of views I find offensive.

  31. @Pete Schult:

    Yeah, I should have said that my own personal experience of Americans has been quite the opposite to the general impression of the populace. Always friendly, polite, enthusiastic, idealistic and often very intelligent.

    I think you get a bad press, which brings me to a point which may take a while to make.

    For 2 years in 1961-63 I lived in Singapore and have visited there twice recently. I loved the place and its people who had suffered dreadfully under the Japanese only 15 y before.

    What they have done with their small island Republic in only one generation is a miracle.

    They are a superbly rational and capable people, true Boy Scouts, more British than the British. Their ethic is to study hard, work hard and look after your parents no matter what. You go to Hell for cheating in exams, I shit you not.

    I am sure that if WBC tried on any of their capers in Singapore they would be arrested, thrown into Changi Gaol and shot trying to escape .

    And the people would all be happy, because nothing of value would be lost.

    And yet…I am still oddly reassured that The Man does not hold total sway over the Internet, and that there is still a vortex of chaos and freedom in the (foul and revolting 4chan) offspring that is Anonymous.

    Oh, and the point of all this?

    Asians are very careful to preserve Face, so there would be no show trial, no Guantanamo Bay, no public soul searching and breast beating and no international condemnation.

    The West could learn something from this.

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