Friday, July 29th 2016

Freedom of (Hate) Speech at a Marine’s Funeral



Fred Phelps and his fundamentalist organization, the Westboro Baptist Church assert that “God Hates Fags!” But did you also know that, according to them, God hates pretty much everyone and everything? After visiting their infamous website  I was informed that God also hates America, and they are eagerly waiting for his vengeance to destroy us. They will “rejoice” when America disintegrates along with virtually every citizen in it because we all are insolent and going to burn in hell.

I think most people also understand the fundamental debate raging about whether such ‘expression’ is a violation of First Amendment. Members of Westboro Baptists Church picketed the funeral of dead Marine, Lance Corporal Matthew Snyder.  The signs openly accused his family of “raising [their son] for the devil.” After tumultuous court battles and the blood, sweat, and tears from his father, Albert Snyder, the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals overturned the decision of the lower courts which awarded them a $5 million dollar judgment for defamation, invasion of privacy, and intentional infliction of emotional distress, all of which constitute tort liability. Why wasn’t the tort of public nuisance on the menu? Just a thought. The rationale behind their judgment in Snyder v. Phelps was that the Free Speech Clause of the First Amendment specifically guarantees that “Congress shall make no law…abridging the freedom of speech.” Therefore, in layman’s terms, Fred Phelps is off the hook. His repugnant speech is protected by law. Of course, there is rampant debate and anger, but ultimately the justification is founded in the fundamental American belief in protecting anyone’s (no matter how insane) ability to express themselves.

The exceptions to this rule come into effect when the person or group actively promotes and incites violence or panic. Hate speech, which is speech against a ‘protected class’ based on their race, gender, ethnicity, nationality, religion, or age” as governed by the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment, coupled with violence is also not constitutionally protected and is against the law .

Side note: did I forget to mention that the website also has a lot to say about Jews?:

“THANK GOD FOR SHOWING AGAIN THE CUT-THROAT FACE OF MODERN JEWRY!” Why hasn’t the Anti-Defamation League or the ACLU waged war against these hate-mongers?

At any rate, because of the ruling not to grant Snyder legal recourse, he was ordered to pay the protesters $16,510 to cover the cost of appeals. Talk about salt in an open wound. Thankfully, the Supreme Court has granted certiorari, so they will review the previous precedent and make a final decision which will hopefully put an end to the spread of such gruesome rhetoric.

All of this tragedy begs the question: What about criminal law? What about basic human rights? As far as criminal law goes, I respect imminent legal scholars and Snyder’s attorneys’ diligent decisions. However, as an outsider and someone who is familiar with criminal law, it seems that Phelps and his posse should be prosecuted for Unlawful Assembly, or “A meeting of three or more individuals to commit a crime or carry out a lawful or unlawful purpose in a manner likely to imperil the peace and tranquility of the neighborhood.” Yes, the mob assembled for a lawful purpose but because of their actions and despicable speech, it can be argued that they put the public peace at risk. Criminal cases don’t just have to be about one person against another, but can involve an individual or group that committed a crime against the safety of the community and therefore is prosecuted by the State. Considering the fact that this group is not only well-documented (and proud) for widespread picketing at public events, one would think they would have been shut down by the State long before this trial had to take place.

Besides Unlawful Assembly, there is the statutory violation of USC titles 38 and 18, otherwise known as the “Respect for America’s Fallen Heroes Act,” enacted in 2006, to protect veterans’ families against this exact same behavior. The Act stipulates, in part, that there is a “prohibition on certain demonstrations at cemeteries under the control of the National Cemetery Administration and at Arlington National Cemetery.” Those demonstrations cannot willfully assist in the making of any noise or diversion that disturbs or tends to disturb the peace of good order of the funeral, memorial service or ceremony.”

Speaking of patriots, has anyone considered the actions of Phelps and the others to be in direct violation of the Patriot Act? This notorious piece of legislation is a federal mandate against domestic terrorism.  According to the Act, an individual engages in domestic terrorism if they do an act “”dangerous to human life”" that is a violation of the criminal laws of a state or the United States, if the act appears to be intended to:  (i) intimidate or coerce a civilian population; (ii) influence the policy of a government by intimidation or coercion (italics added).

After reflecting on the specifics of the Snyder v. Phelps case, it is apparent that such action on the Westboro Baptist Church’s behalf more than satisfies this definition of subversive and inflammatory expression. One must not forget that Phelps’ leadership has influenced others. He has caused several other people to rally against the military. Although their actions are not prohibited, they are radical and reflect their hatred against the government and our country.

How far do they have to go before a court decides to view their rights under a loose constructionist perspective? Many, many controversial cases have been decided, not on the basis of accepted precedent, but based on serious public policy and safety concerns. The only difference between their constitutionally protected speech and that of burgeoning seditious militias across this ‘land of milk and honey’, is that the militias are carrying rifles and thus, the court can infer that they are actively inciting imminent violence toward governing authorities.

Have you done your research on the militias lately? Perhaps the means are different, but can the end be the same?  Is it  just a matter of time before followers of Phelps will follow suit and rise up to illicit riots and wreak havoc among law-abiding citizens?

Posted by Melissa on April 16, 2010 at 11:05 am.

2 Responses to “Freedom of (Hate) Speech at a Marine’s Funeral”

  1. What kind of content does somebody need to write to be able to guest post. I mean it has to be about something specific or completely random? I happend to know a lot on your post Freedom of (Hate) Speech at a Marine’s Funeral | LegalFish: The Daily Tackle

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