Free speech—if you asked the average person on the street if he or she believed in freedom of speech you'd hear, “Yes.” In fact, most of us would defend the principle vigorously. It’s a precious and basic human right many in the Middle East are currently fighting to attain.
In America, the majority population enjoyed freedom of speech, even more broadly freedom of expression, throughout our history. It took us longer to establish freedom of speech for minorities, but it did come, if painfully, in time.
Now we live with it, which would seem to be a grand experience. And it is. But there are times freedom of speech tries our souls.
Such is the case of Westboro Baptist Church of Topeka, Kansas. Wednesday, the United States Supreme Court ruled 8-1 for the church over a lawsuit by Albert Snyder, father of a dead American soldier at whose funeral the church sponsored a protest.
The church contends God is killing American soldiers to judge the nation for its tolerance of homosexuality. Church members march near soldier’s funerals carrying signs stating “God Hates You,” “God is Your Enemy,” “Thank God for Dead Soldiers,” “Thank God for 9/11,” and worse. They shout at soldiers’ grieving families and spout hate in the name of Christianity. Veterans on motorcycles have lined funeral procession routes in an attempt to hold Westboro at bay.
To say Westboro Baptist Church is un-Christian, wrong, and reprehensible, as I've said before, is true. But they become more egregious with each passing funeral. Their words hurt families, grossly misrepresent biblical Christianity, and incite some to violent response. All in all, it seems like some legal remedy should be applied to stop them, and Mr. Snyder tried. But the United States Supreme Court rightly ruled in favor not of Westboro but of freedom of speech.
Sometimes defending freedom makes for awkward bedfellows. Freedom of speech protects the KKK, American Nazis, and various militias. It also protects the platform, the podium, and the pulpit. If the Court ruled for Mr. Snyder, which our emotion and all that seems just suggests, we’d limit freedom of speech. More, the Court would be forced to draw lines and create categories, further delimiting freedom. Emotion, however understandable, doesn’t make good law.
With freedom of speech, those of us who disagree with Westboro Baptist Church may say so. We can contend with their view in the public arena and through moral suasion perhaps win the day. The United States Supreme Court made the correct ruling, however difficult it is to take, thinking about Westboro.
© Rex M. Rogers – All Rights Reserved, 2011
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