Freedom of Speech and the Westboro Baptist Church

Since I reaffirmed my faith as a Christian I began to examine why I fell away from the Catholic Church in the first place. I ultimately came to the conclusion that I was pushed away by Church doctrine, and since then I’ve tried to help other people tell the difference between what God would want, and what a church says God would want. It always made me angry when I would see someone pushed away from their faith by a misguided priest or organization. One of the groups that always made me the angriest was the Westboro Baptist Church.

Westboro Baptist ChurchYou’ve probably seen the Westboro Baptist Church (WBC) on the news before. They are a hate group made up mostly of the Phelps family. They try to get media attention anyway they can, most famously for picketing funerals, but they generally take advantage of any opportunity to get their message out.  They are noted as being outspoken mostly about homosexuality. Sometimes other religious groups seem to draw their fire as well.

This may sound nutty, but over time I’ve actually grown to respect the WBC. They have managed to protest thousands of times over the years, with a number of disorderly conduct arrests on their record so low that I could count them on one hand. Considering the incendiary nature of the message they try to put out there, that’s impressive. Also, the WBC apparently spends somewhere around $250,000 a year protesting. That’s a pretty large figure considering the church numbers maybe 40 people at most.

This respect may stem partially from the fact that I’m no longer shocked by anything they say. When a public tragedy happens they are going to surface, and they are going to say something shocking. They will probably picket funerals. It’s going to happen. Once I got past my shock that anyone could be this vile and disgusting I began to appreciate a few points about them: they believe wholeheartedly that what they preach is right, they will not back down in the face of adversity, and they will conduct themselves in a peaceful and lawful manner. Now, lawful is a little tricky. Picketing funerals legally has been debated hotly in the past, and there have been several lawsuits against the WBC. Ultimately one of the cases came before the Supreme Court and in a an 8–1 decision, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of the WBC’s right to picket. Chief Justice John Roberts was quoted as saying “What Westboro said, in the whole context of how and where it chose to say it, is entitled to ‘special protection’ under the First Amendment and that protection cannot be overcome by a jury finding that the picketing was outrageous.” You can read more about the ruling here: High Court Rules for Military Funeral Protesters.

So I dislike what they do, but I begrudgingly respect them doing it. We need to protect all speech, offensive forms included. GLBT Pride events are offensive to some. If we allow the government to pick and choose favorites then we’d run into instances similar to those in Serbia last year. Officials in Serbia banned a gay pride parade from occurring citing “security concerns”: Serbia Bans Gay Pride Parade.  We are fortunate we live in a country that would allow almost any group to exercise their 1st Amendment rights, even if the police protection detail outnumbers the protesters.

Now, all that said regarding free speech, I’m finally getting around to my point. Recently the WBC has stated that they will be picketing the funerals of those that died in the Boston Marathon bombings last week. As heinous as this is, it is their right to do so as upheld by the Supreme Court. No one can legally stop them from doing this. That’s when Anonymous decided to step in.

Anonymous

Anonymous is a “hacktivist” group, a group that comes together to use their collective computer skills to achieve political goals and ends. Anonymous has threatened the WBC before, and after they were ignored they took action posting online the personal information of several church members, hacking the WBC website, and taking over the WBC Twitter account. Anonymous Threatens Westboro Baptist Church: Protest Boston Bombings Funerals and ‘Expect Us’.  This is not the first time they’ve targeted an organization like the WBC, however, they have often targeted government agencies as well. They attacked the Department of Justice after the DoJ took down a major pirating website known as Megaupload. Anonymous Goes on Megaupload Revenge Spree: DoJ, RIAA, MPAA, and Universal Music All Offline

I appreciate what Anonymous is trying to do. They see there is injustice in the world from their point of view, and they are trying to do their part to right it. It’s a noble cause. That said, I do not condone intimidation, threats, and bullying to get your way. Anonymous touts themselves as freedom fighters, and as champions of free speech. I think one of the phrases they use is “Free Speech is not Negotiable”. Well they are hurting the very concept by trying to force the WBC to stop by using threats of digital vigilantism. I’m sorry, but if you look at this issue objectively regarding free speech, well, it appears the Westboro Baptist Church may actually be on the right side of the fence on this one.

“I do not agree with what you have to say, but I’ll defend to the death your right to say it.”
– Voltaire

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Posted in Libertarian, Politics

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