Westboro Baptist Church Versus Freedom of Speech

by JoHarrington

How do we cope when freedom of speech allows something really hateful? With their God Hates Fags funeral picketing, WBC forces a debate on the issue.

Westboro Baptist Church is a hardline Christian group based in Topeka, Kansas.

They've consistently hit the headlines for picketing funerals, particularly those of military personnel killed in US wars. Their message is that America is doomed, and its people going to Hell, because it's a sinful nation. The death of that individual occurred as a demonstration of God's wrath.

It's not a view shared by many other Christians, let alone other people. But should they still have the right to say it?

I Disapprove of What You Say, But...

Defending freedom of speech can be such hard work, when the rest of the world is being wrong.

When the Friends of Voltaire needed a way to sum up the philosopher's stance on a controversial issue, they came up with the perfect line.

'Je désapprouve ce que vous dites, mais je me battrai jusqu'à la mort pour que vous ayez le droit de le dire.' It's usually attributed to Voltaire himself, but it was said about him; and about the way he thought.

It's usually translated as, 'I disagree with what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.'

Freedom of Speech is very easy to defend, when those opinions expressed chime with your own worldview. It's when the 'opposition' get to speak too that distaste can turn into a wish to silence them.

I learned this lesson as a young student on the steps of a town hall, back in the 1990s.  As a member of the Anti-Nazi League, I was working to combat racism and other expressions of hatred. 

The far right British National Party (BNP) had a candidate standing in the local council elections. A coachload of us turned up to picket the steps into the forum, where each of the candidates would be addressing members of the public.  Our remit felt so correct, as we left the University.  We were to stop the 'Nazi' entering that hall.

He turned up, in his suit and tie, looking every inch the respectable gentleman.  We crowded into his pathway, screaming Anti-Nazi slogans at him.  He stood undaunted before our masses.

"You're trying to stop my freedom of speech.  You're trying to silence a dissenting voice; and you call me a 'Nazi'."  He said.  For most of my peers, that was their cue to yell at him about his racist policies.  For me, it was a wake up call.

What on Earth was I doing here?  I was the only history student there.  I was the only one who was in the process of studying, at graduate level, the rise of the Third Reich.  I knew the reality behind our chants, our placards and our slogans.

He was right.  In our bid to focus on the issue at hand, we'd missed the bigger picture. We'd become the very thing that we sought to challenge.

Watching the backlash against Westboro Baptist Church now reminds me of standing on those town hall steps.

Westboro Baptist Church Sued by Albert Snyder

He was a bereaved father, forced to endure hate speech at the funeral of his son. He took it to the law courts.

To my mind, there is no real defense for the message and actions of the Westboro Baptist Church.  Every syllable of it is repellant to me.  Every second of their protest raises the gall in my throat.

Yet shutting them up could well be more dangerous than letting them speak.

In 2006, Albert Snyder (pictured) sued three members of the Westboro Baptist Church, after they picketed his son's funeral.  U.S. Marine Lance Corporal Matthew A. Snyder had been killed on duty in Iraq.  The protesters took the view that this was a demonstration of God's retribution, as the soldier had been fighting on behalf of a corrupt nation.  Evidence of that corruption, in the minds of the church members, came in the fact of increasing tolerance for gay marriage within the USA.

The main issue for the court was whether the defendants had expressed their views in such an outrageous way, that they should lose the protection of the First Amendment. In short, that these circumstances voided Freedom of Speech.  The jury ruled that they should.

The Westboro Baptist Church was ordered to pay over $10.9m in damages.  But they weren't finished.

Their congregation is largely made up of the extended members of a single family.  Headed by the patriarch, Fred Phelps, many of them are qualified lawyers, including the pastor himself.  They fought back, initially reducing the costs, then taking it to the Supreme Court. 

A majority of 8-1 reversed the original ruling, leaving the church with nothing to pay. In fact, they benefited. Albert Snyder was ordered to pay the court costs of the Westboro Baptist Church, which amounted to $16,510.  The bill was covered by American television host and political pundit Bill O'Reilly.

It was a verdict which felt morally reprehensible on all counts.  Yet I support it.  I'm not alone there, as the American Civil Liberties Union also supported the Phelps family during the case. 

Had Snyder won, then the legal message would have been clear:  Freedom of Speech has its limits.  Shutting up the Phelps family and the rest of the Westboro Baptist Church would have been wonderful.  But that same ruling could have silenced all manner of dissenting voices thereon.

Debating Issues of First Amendment in Snyder v Phelps

DVDs and Books about the Westboro Baptist Church

Discover more about the pastor and his congregation at the center of the controversy.

Old Feuds Buried in Combined Backlash Solidarity

One of the unexpected positive sides of the backlash is watching ordinarily opposed groups speaking up together in condemnation of this church.

It would be hypocritical of me to say that I haven't thrilled to the backlash against the Westboro Baptist Church.  In fact, I've warmed to the wry observation that it's the closest to societal unity that I've ever experienced.

Louis Theroux has a couple of documentaries, about the Phelps family and their church, which he entitled The Most Hated Family in America and The Most Hated Family in America in Crisis.  It summed it up.

In December 2012, a lone gunman opened fire at Sandy Hook Elementary School, in Connecticut, USA. Twenty small children and six of their teachers were killed, along with the teenage gunman and his mother.  Westboro Baptist Church announced their intention to picket the funerals and the backlash was instantaneous and seemingly universal.

The general public took to social networking to condemn the protest; and their words were echoed by journalists in mainstream and independent press alike.  Various groups, including Anonymous, Redditors, Angel Action, the fire brigade, the military, the Patriot Guard Riders, the Ku Klux Klan and the Guardian Angels, all organized a presence there.  They would form a human chain to shield mourners from the church; and to drown out all hate speech.

Christians of all denominations have been lining up to state that the Westboro Baptist Church has nothing to do with Christian teachings.  (Even the ones who, in other forums, would concur with the anti-homosexuality message.)

Anonymous and their fellow hacktivists took it all much, much further.  Again I would be so hypocritical if I didn't confess to cheering and punching the air, as the onslaught began. 

  • Websites belonging to the Phelps family were taken off-line or defaced.
  • Twitter accounts were hijacked. (Pictured above, as taken by UgNazi.)
  • Personal details of the entire congregation were pasted on-line, leading to a tsunami of general public calls to their places of work.
  • A death certificate was issued for Shirley Phelps-Roper, one of the church's most prominent figures, thus cancelling her social security number amongst other things.
  • DDosProtection, the hosting company which provides servers for their websites, came under so much pressure to close them down, that the company offered to pay the hosting fees to charity instead.
  • The Phelps family learned that there were Anonymous members everywhere. As they sat down to lunch in a Burger King, a member of staff was tipping off the hacktivists.  As they checked into their hotel, another was feeding information about their room numbers into the IRC.
  • Their personal e-mails were accessed, allowing counter-protesters to know the church's intentions and movements in advance.
Image: Westboro Baptist Church e-mail about the Connecticut picket.
Image: Westboro Baptist Church e-mail about the Connecticut picket.

The incredible show of unity meant that many legendary hackers came out of semi-retirement to add their strength; while people like @th3j35t3r, who usually uses his skills to combat Anonymous, found himself on side for once.

As I said, the universality of the backlash really did see old enemies standing side-by-side. It would be quite beautiful, if it wasn't for the circumstances surrounding it.  Or the wider implications.

The whole situation raises again those dark questions about Freedom of Speech.  While our emotional response is to scream, 'SHUT UP!' at the Westboro Baptist Church; our intellect should be weighing up the damage to our right to say what we like, when we like.

Naturally, with Freedom of Speech comes responsibility for what we say too.  The Westboro Baptist Church think that they're in the right, even with the avalanche of public opinion against them.  The hackers taking them down also think that they're in the right, and they do have the backing of seemingly everyone.

But if you remove websites, even those as hateful as these, then you also delete a dissenting voice.  And that can never be right.  Even now.

Books about Freedom of Speech

Learn more about the laws and cultural norms which protect the Phelps family, the rest of the Westboro Baptist Church, and you.
Updated: 12/22/2012, JoHarrington
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JoHarrington on 08/05/2013

John Stuart Mill was definitely onto something.

You're right on the latter too. But I also think that 'politically correct' has been diverted into being a bad thing. There are those who express bigotry, but call it honesty and justify it as 'not being politically correct'. Like bigotry is better.

I don't think I've explained that very well. It's been a hard day and I'm tired. But I hope I got the general essence across.

frankbeswick on 08/05/2013

John Stuart Mill had it right, as he argued that the only reason to interfere with liberty is to prevent harm to others. Mill believed that speech should be as free as possible, as this way issues were brought to light. His philosophy is that argument is better than suppression of ideas, as it fosters understanding and enables truth to be clarified. Suppression of speech makes for an intellectually sterile society, he thought.

I think that certain people will accuse their opponents of hate speech, even if there is legitimate disagreement and no hate has been expressed or incitement to hatred made. This has been a common tactic among the poltiically correct. It is totalitarianism masquerading as egalitarianism.

JoHarrington on 06/11/2013

It really is a hard one to call. I'd personally love for everyone who doesn't share my views to be silenced forever. Because they're wrong. But should that actually become a reality, I'd be the first out there defending their right not to be silenced.

But then you have to assume that everyone listening has the ability to tease opinions from facts, and see through clever words designed to make things look good or bad. Unfortunately that kind of discernment isn't wide-spread.

I love what you're doing encouraging civilized debate though.

cazort on 06/11/2013

I agree with AlanB's comments that there is a lot of gray area.

I think that I personally see freedom of speech as something that has reasonable limits. On the other hand, I'd rather people deal with problematic forms of speech by ways other than law enforcement.

One problem I see with groups that persistently promote hate speech and other negative extremist speech, is that I think they are given too much media attention, and thus too much power. If people didn't write about them, they'd quickly become marginalized. (Note, I'm not even referring to them by name, which illustrates how I'd like other people to treat them too.)

One of the reasons I co-founded the group Why This Way, is that I wanted to promote more respectful dialogue in society as a whole, and I wanted to create a system that would promote respectful dialogue through consensus building and establishment of a positive culture of respect and listening. I'm hoping that this group and its ideas, and other groups and movements like it can help address problems like the ones you discuss in this article, without the need for invoking laws and courts and such.

I personally think that when the law and court system becomes involved, it's a sign that things have gone too far for me. I'd rather we find ways to address the problem before it gets to that point. I'd ideally like to live in a society where respect and positivity is the norm, and where hate speech is largely ignored, and people reach out to give help to the people engaging in it rather than amplifying their message and attacking them in turn, as often happens in our society. I think it's possible to overcome these sorts of things by a combination of filtering out the hate speech and focusing on building a culture of positivity and respect.

JoHarrington on 01/15/2013

What saved WBC in the Supreme Court was that their message wasn't deemed a personal attack. Mr Snyder had been representative of a military man, not an individual. That kept it all at the level of civil protest and away from the realms of slander.

Different laws govern slander. Those are the laws which should also take down bullies on Facebook (and everywhere else, most definitely in the playground). Emphasis on the 'should' there.

The First Amendment protected political, civil and cultural discord. I don't believe either that it was there to shield personal attacks. But if we're talking about emotional level harm, then Mitt Romney, Sarah Palin, the NRA, Fox News and a whole host of other people should be forced to shut up. They're causing me emotional harm.

As you said, it's a sticky matter and well worth the debate here.

AlanB on 01/15/2013

This is a very sticky matter, indeed. However, what about other areas of 'Free Speech'? For example, bullying on Facebook that lead some to suicide. Are the bullies not expressing their free speech? We try to make everything seem black and white in this world, but they're not. I don't think the intentions of the 1st Amendment of the Constitution was to protect people that used speech to inflict harm and pain on other people. Is WBC's practice of free speech harmful? I've never encountered them personally, but I think that the people that have are probably harmed by their speech; even if it's just on an emotional level.

JoHarrington on 12/29/2012

But these are the fascinating questions that are being raised by the Westboro Baptist Church situation. Freedom of Speech would be so easy, if everyone agreed on what was being said.

I detest all that WBC stand for, but if I want Freedom of Speech, then they have to have it too. I just wish that they would shut up.

Before we can even discuss how to enforce responsibility, we have to determine what we mean by responsible Freedom of Speech. I know many fox hunting groups who want me to shut up too. Ditto human rights abusers. We're all going to have a different idea of what constitutes the right to speech, as soon as we draw such lines in the sand.

kate on 12/28/2012

I agree with freedom of speech but i also feel rights need to be balanced against responsibilities - because someones rights will always impact on somebody elses. How you enforce people taking responsibility? Now thats a whole new question

JoHarrington on 12/21/2012

I'm mixed on this one. In Britain, we do have laws against hate speech. Members of the Westboro Baptist Church are banned from entering my country accordingly.

But I'm of the opinion that arguments and views, which aren't good, die more quickly in the spotlight than in the shadows. There's too much mystery attached to those being silenced.

I recall once picking up my nephews for a visit to my house. It was voting day, so I commented, "If you don't mind, I need to nip to the voting booth on the way up." My youngest nephew, who was about 13-14 at the time, responded, "Ok, but only if you vote BNP."

I nearly had a heart-attack on the spot!

It did turn out that he was trolling me, but his reasoning was sound. He'd heard so much about the other parties, but whenever the BNP was mentioned, it was all 'they're bad' and no further information. He found himself curious, because they alone weren't afforded television time. No newspaper reported them. The adults around him just wrinkled up their noses and dismissed them as a hate group. He was being told to hate a party of which he knew nothing.

Should people have the right to demand the deaths of others? Absolutely not. But they should be arrested under intent to kill laws, rather than freedom of speech/hate speech laws.

Sam on 12/20/2012

"Either everyone has freedom of speech, or nobody does." Yes and no, would agree that a group that demands that people with xyz color, sex, gender orientation has to be killed has the right to say so? Opinion is one thing, hate another. My freedom stops there where it limits the freedom of another person - not sure who said this, but this is basically the boundary I see. SY

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