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A critical victory for free speech

By Scott Tibbs, March 9, 2011

The Supreme Court delivered a critical victory for free speech in protecting the right of the Westboro Baptist Church to picket the funerals of fallen American soldiers with the message that God is punishing America for being too accepting of homosexuality. I was surprised and encouraged by the 8-1 margin of the decision.

If these people actually believed in what they were doing I might be able to respect the courage of their convictions even as I find their message depraved. But this has nothing to do with homosexuality. This is about getting on TV and in the news as much as possible. They are nothing but attention whores. In fact, church member Margie Phelps admitted as much during an interview on Fox News Sunday:

But at the end of the day, call us a cult, call us anything. Just publish the words. At this point, all of that name-calling has become white noise, as the entire world looks over at this message. And, in fact, this case put a megaphone to the mouth of this church.

The tiny "church" had made a name for itself in the 1990's by picketing the funerals of homosexuals and stirring up a great deal of anger in the process. While this made headlines, they were not as well known nationally as they wanted to be. After the 9/11 terrorist attacks, they had a new target, that they exploited for maximum media coverage: the funerals of American soldiers. This has led to a number of states looking at ways to restrict these protests.

But we have to be careful of unintended consequences that could potentially restrict peaceful and respectful First Amendment activity. In January 2008, the annual Rally for Life at the Monroe County courthouse - which is always scheduled months in advance - happened to be a few blocks away from a funeral. Due to this unfortunate coincidence, an admitted former abortion clinic escort compared the rally to the depraved WBC funeral protests.

It is not difficult to imagine Christian Citizens for Life being subject to harassment by government should such an unfortunate coincidence take place in the future, especially in a city like Bloomington. Because of the proximity of several downtown churches to the county courthouse and the IU Sample Gates, it would not be surprising if funerals and political protests have often been in relatively close proximity.

Of course, the basic issue here is whether government has the right to impose content-based restrictions on speech. The answer should be a resounding "no." Virtually any political speech can be deemed hurtful or offensive, if people observing have a personal stake in the outcome. As a cancer survivor, I find protests against biomedical research to be personally offensive, but I do not have the right to prevent animal rights activists from protesting against it.

As depraved as the Westboro attention whores may be, it is cases like this where me must take a firm stand in favor of free speech. Defending the right of someone to convey an inoffensive or popular message is easy, because there is little reason to restrict that speech. But once government establishes the precedent that the most vile and despicable speech can be restricted, that same precedent can be used for less and less offensive speech.

If we value our free speech rights, we must not accept any compromise.

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