What goes around comes around

April 16, 2010

As a writer trained in journalism, the First Amendment is very important to me.  I almost always reside on the side of free speech, even if I find the speech offensive.  As one of my favorite professors used to say, “In America, we have a protected right to make a fool of ourselves.”

But nothing is black and white.  It is the complicated, fuzzy gray areas that make life real, give it dimension, and keep us from getting bored.  Yes, we should be able to make fools of ourselves if we are so inclined.  But at some point, speech crosses a line of basic human decency.  The Westboro Church of Topeka, Kan. has crossed that line. 

When Albert Snyder’s 20-year-old son died in Iraq over four years ago, the family planned a traditional military funeral to honor Lance Cpl. Matthew Snyder’s sacrifice. 

Mourners were horrified when Matthew’s funeral was used as a stage for a radical political protest by Westboro Church.  News broadcasts showed protestors outside the funeral carrying signs that read, “Thank God for dead soldiers,” and “You’re going to Hell.”

The group’s website states that, “Military funerals have become pagan orgies of idolatrous blasphemy, where they pray to the dunghill gods of Sodom and play taps to a fallen fool.” 

The group believes that soldiers dying in Iraq and elsewhere is God’s punishment for America’s support of the homosexual community.

Ironically, these soldiers died defending these people’s right to make whatever irrational assertions about their government that they want.  These soldiers are dying to defend Westboro’s right to protest at their funerals.

In the years since his son’s funeral, Albert Snyder has been in an all-consuming legal battle against Westboro Church.  The church argues that it has a protected right under the First Amendment to picket funerals.  Mr. Snyder believes otherwise.   

Westboro doesn’t limit its protests to military funerals.  They began their crusade at the funeral of Matthew Shepard, the gay college student who was brutally murdered in Wyoming in 1998. 

Many were sickened by the images of Matthew Shepard’s grieving parents trying to navigate a mob of screaming protestors to bury their son. 

In 2007, the Westboro group also protested at the funeral of the Reverend Jerry Falwell, the prominent voice of conservative evangelical Christianity.  Westboro followers believe that Falwell was a false prophet who preached lies such as, “God loves everyone.”

Mr. Snyder argues that protesting at funerals is not protected speech because it is inciting violence.  This point is beyond dispute. 

Prior to Rev. Falwell’s memorial, authorities discovered bombs in the car of a Liberty University student planning to attack the Westboro protestors during the funeral.  Violence has officially been incited.   

It is almost universally agreed upon that protesting a funeral, any funeral, is inappropriate.  But constitutional scholars fear that a ruling against Westboro would create a “slippery slope” that would eventually lead to greater restrictions on free speech for everyone. 

I don’t share this fear.  If the law were interpreted to prohibit protesting at funerals, we would still maintain our right to peaceably assemble on the steps of the Capital, in our local parks, and other public spaces. 

It’s true that our right to free speech is sacred.  But so is our right to grieve our loved ones in peace.  The Supreme Court has agreed to hear Mr. Snyder’s case. 

If he loses, Westboro followers should be prepared for protesters at their funerals carrying signs that read, “God loves everyone,” and “God bless America.”  After all, what goes around comes around.

This article first appeared in the Lewistown News-Argus and the Sidney (Mont.) Herald on April 16, 2010.