Silver Chips Online

Supporting the speech, opposing the message

March 10, 2011
This article was written by the Silver Chips Print Editorial Board and is intended to represent the official views of the newspaper.

As the dark train of cars inched along the rural Maryland road, the gloomy atmosphere belied the familyís pride. The son they were burying had died honorably in combat. But one thousand feet away, dogged protesters screamed obscenities and defamed the fallen soldier.

Itís the funeral scene of any familyís worst nightmare. Yet this bizarre sight was a reality for Albert Snyder. He had to endure the delusions of members of the Westboro Baptist Church when they brought their trademark homophobic rants to Matthew Snyderís military funeral in 2006. In response, Albert Snyder sued the church, claiming emotional distress and invasion of privacy.

In the Supreme Courtís March 2 ruling in Snyder v. Phelps, eight justices sided with the protestersí right to free speech, citing a need to protect one of the nationís most fundamental tenets. While the victory for Westboro might spark initial anger, the court was correct: The protesters deserve a place in hell, but not in prison.

Westboro preaches a message filled with prejudice, but even hate speech merits a place in our political discourse. Unless it causes harm to an individual, offensive speech is constitutionally protected. In this case, Snyder wasnít even aware of the protestersí presence until he saw a news report about them.

Although funerals deserve special consideration due to their sensitive nature, Westboro protesters stayed one thousand feet away and remained on public land. The ruling has made clear that states cannot limit protests based on content. Thatís fair. But simple restrictions on the time and place of protests at funerals are valid and often necessary to preserve the emotional integrity of the event ó the Court should make the distinction clear.

The protection of the First Amendment isnít only a concern for journalists, though; itís a pivotal element of any citizenís life. Freedom of expression enhances debate by broadening our horizons and allowing a diverse array of ideas and opinions. Itís a basic principle of our proud nation that openness and access will lead to better results.

We can only understand how strong the protection of the First Amendment must be when it extends to matters that challenge us and make us uncomfortable. Especially in cases like this where common sense clashes with constitutional precedent, the Supreme Courtís commitment to free speech should make us feel safer.

And we are safe. Ironically, on the same day as the Courtís ruling, the Chinese government decreed a severe crackdown on international journalists in Beijing, further restricting their citizensí right to access and express varying viewpoints.

The United Statesí commitment to free speech also juxtaposes with recent turmoil in the Middle East, where authoritarian governments have refused to grant citizens basic liberties. Resulting rebellions have proven that such repression breeds discontent. Yet they also expose the disparity between democracyís embrace of human rights and the tyrannical grip on power that authoritarian leaders exhibit. We should consider ourselves fortunate to live in a country where government actively strives to protect all forms of speech, even the ugliest.

Supreme Court decisions that protect conventional beliefs and widely accepted norms rarely incite this level of controversy. But divisive rulings like that in Snyder v. Phelps are frequently those that say the most about our countryís identity and unique beliefs. In this case, it displays our unwavering dedication to the freedom of expression. We should therefore celebrate this decisionís affirmation of the United Statesí pioneering attitude toward its citizensí individual liberties.