I was sickened to read that the Westboro Baptist Church plans to protest during the vigils and funerals of many of the 20 children slain in the tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary School this coming weekend. (Protest) No parent should have to bury children so young and it is unthinkable to me that they would have to have these impossibly difficult moments punctuated by someone interrupting the needed community coalescence with screams of “this is God’s will” and “God hates Newtown.” I was so stunned that I struggled for a minute to try to figure out ANY rational reason why these folks would vilely intrude during what is already a national tragedy in which local families have suffered unspeakable trauma. I have not been able to come up with a reasonable answer, but published reports say that the stated reasons for protest are Connecticut’s approval of laws allowing same-sex marriage or that it is part of the groups primary objective to claim that ”tragedies such as shootings, saying it’s God’s punishment for their actions.” (Motive) Regardless of the “reasoning” it is difficult for me to find any way to justify this vile protest.
I first thought about the real meaning of our First Amendment as a junior in high school during the ACLU’s now famous 1978 case where that group defended the right of a Nazi group that wanted to march through the streets of the Chicago suburb Skokie, Illinois. Skokie was not accidentally selected by this Nazi group because it was the home to a number of Holocaust survivors. The ACLU archives reports this about the Skokie protest:
The ACLU persuaded a federal court to strike down three ordinances that placed significant restrictions on the Nazis’ First Amendment right to march and express their views. The decision to take the case was a demonstration of the ACLU’s commitment to the principle that constitutional rights must apply to even the most unpopular groups if they’re going to be preserved for everyone. Many now consider this one of the ACLU’s finest hours. (ACLU)
I remember being torn as a kid between wanting to ban the Nazi group, one of the ultimate groups of hate and prejudice, and my belief that the First Amendment applied to everyone, even those I vehemently disagreed with. It did matter to me where the protest was going to take place because the hate group was intentionally trying to remind survivors of genocide about that dark and evil time. On the other hand I had always quoted Voltaire, ”I disagree strongly with what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”
There have been several responses to the Westboro protests. The hacker group Anonymous has first issued the following statements,
“We will not allow you to corrupt the minds of America with your seeds of hatred,” says the voice-over in the video. “We will not allow you to inspire aggression to the social factions which you deem inferior. We will render you obsolete. We will destroy you. We are coming.”
On Sunday, Anonymous posted to Pastebin a list of data that it claimed belonged to Westboro members. The data included names, street addresses, phone numbers and email addresses, according to CNET. Finally, the group took down the Westboro website and claims that it will deface it while in possession. (Website) While I can understand the anger of Anonymous, I will never support or condone violation of our laws as a legitimate tool to combat behavior we disagree with.
In addition, in two separate movements petitions have been started and are gaining momentum to label Westboro as a “hate” group to allow the Obama Administration to review what steps can be taken under federal law. According to CNN,
Two White House petitions, both published on Friday, aim to classify the Westboro Baptist Church as a hate group. “Legally recognize Westboro Baptist Church as a hate group” has more than 72,000 signatures, while another called “Define the Westboro Baptist Church as a hate group due to promoting animosity against differing cultural demographics” clocks in at 17,000 signatures.
While I would agree that Westboro has repeatedly shown itself to be a group of hate and anger, I am not sure that I want to have a tiny sliver of the American people be able to sign a petition restricting anyone’s right to speak, no matter how vile or offensive.
Finally, I found this notice from folks in and around Newtown:
Now here is something that I can unequivocally support. While I believe that the First Amendment does not allow us to prevent speech, it does allow us to reasonably limit the time, place and manner of that speech as long as those restrictions are not related to the content of the speech. While everyone has the right to stand up on the soap box and scream their opinion to the wind, they do not have the right to shove someone off of the soap box to take their turn.
What I really fear in this case is the reaction to this particular set of facts and circumstances. In law school I learned that “bad facts made bad law,” and this is precisely the kind of case that falls under this category. The overwhelming majority of Americans oppose the actions of the Westboro protestors and almost all would agree that the funeral or vigil for a slain child would be the worst possible place to conduct such a protest. People do not want this protest to take place. I fear that in reaction to this really bad set of facts, precedence will be established that allows the branding of other groups as “hate” groups and actions are taken to erode the precious freedoms of the First Amendment. We have lots of laws in place to handle speech that goes to far. We allow damages for those libeled or slandered by lies, we allow jail time for those who lie under oath and we allow damages for those whose statements are made to inflict harm or injury (yelling “fire” in a theater). ALL of those measures take place AFTER the offensive speech and there are extremely limited circumstances in which action can be taken to prevent the speech.
I truly hope that the local effort to form a peaceful and effective human wall works and that the parents, friends and neighbors of those so horribly killed are left to remember these children in their own way.