Offensive speech On this issue alone, stand with Westboro

Thursday, March 3, 2011 5:33 PM

No one should be surprised that the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in favor of the Westboro Baptist Church, which protests loudly and offensively at military funerals.

The First Amendment protects even people who scream “Thank God for dead soldiers,” “Thank God for 9-11” and “God hates fags” at soldier’s funerals. Church members belief that military deaths are God’s punishment for what they perceive as the nation’s tolerance of homosexuality.

The court agreed with an appeals court that threw out a $5 million judgment to a father who had sought damages because Westboro had picketed at a service for his son, Marine Lance Cpl. Matthew Snyder, 20, who was killed in Iraq. Chief Justice John Roberts wrote that the government cannot react to a listeners’ pain by punishing the speaker.

The First Amendment begins, “Congress shall make no law ....” That amendment protects not only Westboro but all those who oppose everything Westboro says and stands for. Other speakers can, and should, present opposing opinions. In the case of Westboro, others — including silent others, because silence is a powerful form of expression — should do their best to insulate grieving family members from the pain Fred Phelps and his family seek to inflict. Buffer zones should be required. There is no law that allows protesters to stand by a grave and hurl invective at mourners.

Shocking and offending listeners seems to be the church’s entire strategy, which is perplexing because its an extremely ineffective form of evangelism. A standard argument in such cases used to be that innocuous speech has little need for protection, although non-Christians’ complaints about “merry Christmas” have rendered that claim less persuasive. Still, only speech that someone tries to silence requires intervention by the Supreme Court.

When it seems that the Court is protecting an action for which there can be very little defense, it’s important to take a larger view, with a focus on the Middle East. The speech aimed at former Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak was no doubt hurtful toward him. Libyan dictator Muammar el-Qaddafi is certainly stung by what he’s seeing and hearing and is striking back violently. Yet the forces of freedom, primarily exemplified right now by freedom speech, have gained power that many people have tried for many years through many other means to achieve. The substitution of words for lethal weapons has saved many lives.

There is no force for positive change that is more powerful than the free exchange of ideas. That value outweighs the indisputable argument that expression and assembly and religion are sometimes used for ill.

No matter how offensive the majority finds the words and actions of Westboro Baptist, such rights must be protected in order for the rest of us to be able to influence the direction of our nation. That is no small privilege. Westboro’s disgusting protests are a stark reminder that with great rights come great responsibilities. The public response must be to take up those responsibilities, not to abridge the rights upon which we all depend.