On March 26, a federal appeals court ruled that a grieving family must pay the legal expenses of nutcase Fred Phelps and his equally nutty followers at Westboro Baptist Church in Topeka after the group protested their sonâ€™s military funeral.
Westboro is a hate group that has been picketing funerals across the country since 1998, particularly those of American soldiers. They believe that military deaths and other tragedies around the world are Godâ€™s revenge against America and other countries for their tolerance of homosexuality. They intrude on the space of grieving families, holding signs reading, â€œThank God for Dead Soldiers,â€ â€œThank God for 9/11,â€ and, most famously, â€œGod Hates Fags.â€
They protested at the funeral of Matthew Shepard, the University of Wyoming student who was beaten to death because he was gay. Theyâ€™ve brought their hateful disregard for decency to funerals and memorials for victims of plane crashes, murders and other tragedies. Theyâ€™ve picketed several Jewish sites, proclaiming that God hates Jews and Israel. Phelps once claimed, â€œJews are the real Nazis,â€ while protesting the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum.
They spewed their hatred in front of five churches and the federal courthouse in Iowa after same-sex marriage was legalized there. Theyâ€™ve occasionally stomped on American flags. Theyâ€™ve even picketed a Topeka appliance store because they sold Swedish vacuum cleaners (you read that correctly). The church viewed the store as supportive of gays because of Swedish prosecution of a homophobic pastor.
Westbro picketed Lance Cpl. Matthew Snyderâ€™s funeral in 2006. They didnâ€™t know him and thus had no understanding of his familyâ€™s unimaginable grief. They simply decided that the familyâ€™s vulnerability presented an opportunity to advance their disgusting agenda.
Albert Snyder, Matthewâ€™s father, sued the group and won an $11 million judgment against them. However, the award was reduced to $5 million on one appeal and was overturned altogether with this most recent ruling. The judge here also decided to add one whopper of an insult to injury by ruling that the Snyders must reimburse Westboro for more than $16,000 of its legal fees.
This decision may be setting a disturbing precedent. When the Snyders sued to protect the common decency that everyone needs to extend to grieving families, they were rewarded with a court order to repay the legal fees of those who caused them even more pain. Sure, the judge noted the tastelessness of Westboroâ€™s protests, but thatâ€™s a moot point here.
This could also have a dangerous effect on morale and willingness to serve on the part of prospective soldiers in a time where forces are already stretched thinly across the Middle East.
There are two things that must happen to rectify this travesty, as well as prevent future ones like it. First, the Supreme Court needs to accept the Snydersâ€™ appeal, not only for them, but also for grieving families everywhere. They need to reverse the decision that spat on a soldierâ€™s grave and reaffirm the need for common sense and basic decency in the way we honor our fallen heroes.
Second, hate groups like these must not be allowed the legal opportunity to use funerals to advance their agenda. Protesting at any funeral, let alone those of fallen soldiers, must be made a federal crime.
Free speech is not an absolute right; much like slander and libel, public obscenity and other harmful expressions of speech, invading the sanctity of a familyâ€™s privacy to add to their already unfathomable suffering falls outside the list of constitutionally protected speech.
To borrow an oft-used phrase, harming a family by maliciously protesting at a funeral is analogous to yelling â€œfireâ€ in a crowded theater. Free speech is predicated upon individuals exercising their constitutional rights responsibly, for the good of our country. The parishioners at Westboro apparently do not realize this.
Kevin Hollinshead is a junior political science major. His columns appear Mondays in the Collegian. Letters and feedback can be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org.