The United States Supreme Court ruled earlier today in favor of the right of Fred Phelps and the Westboro Baptist Church to protest outside funerals. The Topeka, Kansas-based church, which consists almost entirely of Phelps and his family, has attained a level of infamy these last few years by assembling near the funerals of American military dead and holding up signs with slogans like “Thank God for Dead Soldiers”, “Semper Fags”, and the fiendishly clever “You’re Going to Hell”.
Westboro Baptist first made national headlines in 1998 when members protested the funeral of Matthew Shepard, the 21-year-old University of Wyoming student who had been beaten to death because he was gay. They’ve since protested outside hundreds of funerals, as well as courthouses and state legislatures, usually expressing their opposition to same-sex marriage and other forms of gay equality by holding up signs reading “God Hates Fags”.
In an overwhelming 8-1 decision, the court ruled in favor of Westboro Baptist, and against Albert Snyder, who filed suit after the church protested at the funeral of his son Matthew, a Marine Lance Corporal killed in a vehicle accident in Al Anbar province, Iraq, in 2006.
And the court was absolutely right. Freedom of speech doesn’t cease to exist when the speech in question is ugly, or hateful, or hurtful. Of course the idea of a small group of bigoted religious fanatics protesting near the burial of a dead soldier is disgusting to most of us. It’s a despicable thing to do. It’s a horrible thing, grieving family and friends having to bury their beloved son or daughter, brother or sister in the presence of a bunch of ignorant assholes holding up signs that read “God Hates the U.S.A.” or “Thank God for 9/11”.
But hurt feelings, even those of devastated parents saying good-bye to their dead children, cannot override the freedom of expression, no matter how vile the expression — not in a free society. As Oliver Wendell Holmes famously wrote, the first amendment guarantees not merely free speech, but free thought:
Not free thought for those who agree with us, but freedom for the thought that we hate. (United States vs. Schwimmer, 1929.)
Freedom of expression that only protects popular speech is worthless. Freedom of expression that protects all speech, no matter how repugnant, is worth everything.