Monday, December 13, 2010

Freedom for the Thought We Hate

This past weekend, a private memorial service was held to honor Elizabeth Edwards, who died of breast cancer. Yet not every voice in the vicinity of the service was respectful. A handful of protesters, according to the Huffington Post , who are followers of Rev. Fred Phelps, head of the Westboro Baptist Church, shouted slogans against Ms. Edwards and held up signs suggesting that God once killed her 16 year old son as punishment for her political views and that her own death was divinely inspired.

This is not the first time Phelps and his group have protested at a funeral. In fact, they have protested at a few hundred funerals over the past 10 years. Their most famous protest is now an important case before the current Supreme Court, Snyder v. Phelps. The Court must decide if there should be any limits on free speech—even vile and offensive speech such as the words of Phelps and his followers.  (Here is a link to the story from National Public Radio). 

In brief, the case centers on Phelps's legal protest of Cpl. Mathew Snyder, who died in Iraq. When his family gathered to pay their last respects, they were confronted with picketers who showed up holding signs that read "God Hates Fags" and "You're Going to Hell." (They do not suggest that Snyder was gay. Instead, they hope to call attention to their larger message that the war is a reflection of God's judgment). The protesters did not crash the church, and in fact stayed within the grounds specified by local authorities—as they have at every other protest.

A lower court awarded a $5 million judgment against the picketers, but a federal appeals court invalidated that judgment against the picketers, concluding that even outrageous opinion is protected by the First Amendment's guarantee of free speech. They further ordered Snyder to pay Phelps's legal fees. Phelps sees his message as guaranteed by the First Amendment and insists that his views are an expression of his religious beliefs—that "boys are coming home in body bags. That's the punishment of God almighty upon this nation." Here is a short recording of the case as it played out in front of the Supreme Court. Click on the link below to listen without leaving the page:

Listen to Snyder v. Phelps

Should there be limits on free speech—or should the court preserve free speech even for the thought it hates? 

UPDATE: "Justices Rule for Protesters at Military Funerals"


David said...

While I believe that nearly everybody who reads this can agree that this guy is out of line, I do not see that he has broken the law. I believe in free speech, and even this is protected by the first amendment. The fact that these people were protesting a funeral, of all things, is astonishing. Shouldn't the mourning family have the right to mourn without others telling them not to? Maybe in this case, a limit of time should be placed. Perhaps two weeks after the funeral a protest could occur. Hopefully, in cases like these, the court could make a middle ruling. Preserve free speech while respecting the mourning family. While the line would be hard to draw, I believe that it could be done. The thing I really have a problem with is that the actions of one man and his followers reflect poorly upon other Christians, regardless weather they agree with him or not. This I find very frustrating. See my blog for more on profiling and actions making groups look bad.

Sarah said...

Hi, This is Sarah’s father. This evening Sarah happily surprised me by asking, “Dad, are you in the mood to read Mr. O’Connor’s blog post and write a comment?” This was music to my ears. Here goes...

This blog post about the military funeral of Lance Cpl. Mathew Snyder and the subsequent legal issue is simultaneously heart breaking and thought provoking. In America the constitutional freedoms of speech and religion are like a piece of apple pie...everyone loves it. Unless, of course, your final moments with your child at his or her funeral are reprehensibly disrupted by religious zealots jockeying for the inevitable media coverage. Only in America.

The beautiful thing about “only in America” is that every force can have a counter force. The House has the Senate. The Media has the FCC. The Appellate Court has the Supreme Court. Religion has atheism. Microsoft has Apple. The New York Times has Fox News. The ACLU has the National Security Agency.

And, Westboro Baptist Church has the Patriot Guard Riders.

The Patriot Guard Riders is a national motorcycle club of primarily veterans who attend military funerals at the invitation of the family. Their mission is to shelter and protect the funerals from the protesters of the Westboro Baptist Church who claim that military deaths in Iraq and Afganistan are divine retribution for American tolerance of homosexuality.

The Patriot Guard Riders now have 215,000 members across the country. These are men and women who served in the military and are demonstrably thankful to their fallen brothers-in-arms. Even on very short notice this group can mobilize up to a hundred bikers from local chapters to respectfully escort the family to the funeral and cemetery. And, with their presence, provide honor and dignity for the fallen. In fact, as I write this, The Patriot Guard Riders have 40 “missions” scheduled for the next few days across the entire country.

So, how do the Patriot Guard Riders shield the family members from the media-seeking protesters? Here’s their simple and official marching orders:

“If protestors are in attendance we simply hold our flags with our backs turned to the protestors. We, in no way, engage the protestor either verbally or physically. We may sing, rev our engines or say the Pledge of Allegiance ...”

Only in America.

Carolyn A. said...

This is truly sickening. I just came across an article which contained many statements the Elizabeth Edwards made in regard to her religious values. One powerful quote reads

"And I have to recognize with each of these things, they just happen," she told King. "You didn't have to do something wrong to justify them."

She came to the realization that she was not responsible for the misfortunes that occured during her life. Earlier in the article she acknowledges questioning God's affection when her son died and her husband's affair was brought to light, however she had the strength to push through those personal doubts.
It is maddening to me that at her funeral, protestors once again began to insist that "God once killed her 16 year old son as punishment for her political views" (Doc Oc).
To accuse her of deserving God's hatred is to completely disrespect her life and her strength as a person to overcome such personal tragedies.

Alex S said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Alex S said...

In the midst of the tragic Arizona shootings, the Westboro Baptist Church decided to picket at the funeral of Federal Judge John Roll and were previously planning to picket at 9-year-old Christina Green's funeral. As sickening as this is, there is a group of people who act like the Patriot Guard Riders Mr. Egen commented about. They are called "Angel action" and are planning on standing in front of the protesters at the John Roll's funeral. They wear huge angel wings 8-10 feet tall that block the signs of the Westboro Baptist church. (See more at I do believe that it is in the Westboro Baptist Church's rights to protest, even as sickening as they are. However it's nice to know that even though there are people like the church members doing terrible things, that there are also those who take great measures to counteract them. To see a picture of an "angel" see: