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More on the Westboro Baptist "Church" ruling

By Scott Tibbs, November 20, 2007

A quick review: a federal court awarded $11,000,000 to a man who sued the Westboro Baptist "Church" for picketing the funeral of his son. I maintain that this is a dangerous challenge to free speech, and will have a chilling effect on free speech, especially controversial, confrontational and offensive speech. I want to address a few arguments in favor of censoring the WBC:

What about respect for the dead?

This is going to sound cold, but the fact is that the dead do not care if some wackos are picketing a funeral. Once someone dies, he moves on to one of two places: Heaven or Hell. No childish act of protest is going to spoil someone's fellowship with God on Heaven, and an offensive protest cannot make Hell any worse than it already is. Funerals are not for the dead, they are for the living. The attention whores in the Westboro Baptist "Church" seek to provoke the survivors by mocking their dead loved ones. Unless you can show concrete harm beyond emotional distress caused by a message people find offensive, the Fist Amendment should be considered far more sacred than a funeral.

No law was made, so this is not a First Amendment issue.

Wrong. First of all, the rulings of a court carry the force of law. What happened here is that tort law was interpreted by a court to punish free speech in a clearly unconstitutional way. There is no escaping the fact that the government (through a ruling by a court) is punishing the WBC for the content of their speech. Spin as much as you want, there is no escaping the facts.

How is this different from libel or slander lawsuits?

Libel and slander are thorny issues when it comes to free speech. For example, certain politicians are not above using a libel lawsuit to silence critics or place a chilling effect on future criticism by political opponents. For this reason, safeguards need to be in place to guard against frivolous libel suits. However, in the case of libel you can at least present concrete evidence of harm caused by false information being spread about a person or group of persons. What we have with the Westboro Baptist "Church" protests is anger, rage, and hurt feelings about an offensive opinion.

The court, which is not the government, mediated the dispute and, in the end, found for the plaintiff.

This statement by Greg Travis (husband of Monroe County Council member Sophia Travis) might be the single most stupid statement I have ever read in political discourse. Yes, a court is the government. More specifically, courts are part of the government. If the courts were not part of the government, what would it matter how they rule in a dispute? The ruling would not carry the force of law and could be freely ignored. Many judges are elected officials while others are appointed by the President and governors. Everything the courts do - from buying paper clips to paying salaries of court workers - are paid for by tax dollars.

I don't like the Westboro Baptist "Church". I view them as little more than attention whores. However, if we value the First Amendment, the first and most important line of defense for free speech is speech that is universally repulsive. Once you establish the precedent that the content of speech can be restricted, that precedent can be used to place the line farther and farther back until we reach the point where we wonder where our First Amendment rights have gone. Is this really a risk we want to take?