The Real Winner

Monday, March 7, 2011

In 1978, the Nazi Party decided to hold a march and rally in Skokie, Illinois, which had a large Jewish population. When the city refused to give the demonstrators a permit, they turned to the ACLU to represent them.

The ACLU had a dilemma. Although it despised the Nazi Party and everything it stood for, the ACLU was a fierce defender of free speech. So what was it to do? It accepted the case, and the courts allowed the rally to proceed.* It may seem like the Nazi Party won, but freedom of speech was the real winner.

This past Wednesday, the Supreme Court decided a case that reminds me of the Skokie case and creates the same dilemma.** You may know the facts, but if you don't, here is a summary.

The Westboro Baptist Church is one of the smallest but most prominent "churches" in America. It was founded by Fred Phelps, and its congregation is composed of members of his family. Westboro claims that God kills American soldiers as punishment for sin, and especially for this country's tolerance of homosexuality in the military. To spread its message, Westboro pickets funerals for soldiers killed in the line of duty.

After Marine Lance Corporal Matthew Snyder was killed in Iraq, Phelps and several of his relatives traveled to Maryland to picket the service. They notified the city of their intent and followed the relevant ordinances. The picket signs bore hateful messages, but the picketers did not attempt to keep anyone from attending the funeral or the burial, did not yell or use profanity, and did not engage in violence.

Corporal Snyder's father sued the picketers for intentional infliction of emotional distress, and a jury awarded Mr. Snyder over $10 million. Phelps and his relatives appealed, claiming that the jury award violated their First Amendment free speech rights.

Westboro's actions are the antithesis of Christianity, and its name is a taint on the many Baptist churches that follow Christ's command to love our enemies. Christ hated sin, but he loved people. All people. Westboro's statements and tactics show its hate for those same people.

Since I sympathize with the family and friends of the soldiers whose funerals Westboro targets, my heart wanted Westboro to lose.

But my mind said something else.

The First Amendment is designed to protect unpopular speech and ideas that aren't endorsed by the majority of Americans. If Westboro's members aren't allowed to express their ideas, what happens to my right to say something that isn't considered "politically correct"? As long as Westboro's members are allowed to proclaim their message, I'm allowed to proclaim mine. If their speech is suppressed, what will happen to the true Christian message if it becomes an outcast in this society?

I may seem like hate won, but freedom of speech was the real winner.

And I can live with that.

* Collin v. Smith, 578 F.2d 1197 (7th Cir. 1978).

** Snyder v. Phelps, 562 U.S. __ (2011). The United States Supreme Court decided this case (No. 09-751) on March 2, 2011.

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