Westboro Baptist learns the cost of free speech

I remember a song years ago (can’t quite recall who the artist was, though) that contained the line, “Freedom is never cheap just because it’s free.” Jesus told his followers,

“Suppose one of you wants to build a tower. Will he not first sit down and estimate the cost to see if he has enough money to complete it? For if he lays the foundation and is not able to finish it, everyone who sees it will ridicule him, saying, ‘This fellow began to build and was not able to finish.'” – Luke 14:28-30

Well, the followers of Fred Phelps, the psuedo-Baptist paster of Westboro Baptist Church, just learned that the cost of free speech in America is in the neighborhood of $11 million; only I’m not sure that they can count that high. From the AP:

Associated Press Writer

BALTIMORE (AP) — The father of a fallen Marine was awarded nearly $11 million Wednesday in damages by a jury that found leaders of a fundamentalist church had invaded the family’s privacy and inflicted emotional distress when they picketed the Marine’s funeral. …

Snyder sued the Kansas-based Westboro Baptist Church for unspecified monetary damages after members staged a demonstration at the March 2006 funeral of his son, Lance Cpl. Matthew Snyder, who was killed in Iraq.

Church members picket military funerals out of a belief that U.S. deaths in the war in Iraq are punishment for the nation’s tolerance of homosexuality.

Apparently church members also carried signs with anti-gay slogans as well as anti-military slogans, even though Snyder was not gay. The jury felt that the right to free speech stops when it damages others, in this case, the right of the family to mourn without being picketed. Phelps, however, plans to appeal, believing that the case “will elevate me to something important.” My gut response at this point is simply, “what a jerk.”

I don’t know enough about the points argued to have any feeling for whether this case would be overturned on appeal. I could see an appellate court ruling in favor of free speech; however, the question remains as to whether the protesters’ methods went over the line, and whether they have the right to target individuals to make a public statement. The Westboro protesters were, after all, intentionally inflicting emotional distress; otherwise, the protest would have been ineffective (or ineffective in a different way than it already was). There are appropriate ways to express yourself, and as much as I believe in the freedom of speech, I do think there have to be reasonable limits. Call it censorship, but that’s how I see it.

Another issue in this case is also a 1st Amendment issue, the right to express their religious beliefs. However, that too has its limits. Human sacrifice, for example, is understandably over the line, as is serving poison-laced koolaid for communion and car-bombing. I wish being stupid was also over the freedom of religion line, but that would be harder to judge than pornography, and as you know by now, that would infringe on our right of free speech (the right to say really stupid things in public).

However, there’s a deeper issue here, from a Christian standpoint. Phelps has been quoted as saying, “The goofy jury threw a fit at God.” However, I don’t think God was the issue. In fact, I don’t think anyone saw God anywhere in Westboro Baptist’s protest; I know I haven’t. My guess is that God was comforting the mourners, not marching with the Westboro bunch. Phelps and company are not representing Christianity, they are only representing hate and self-righteousness (which are not fruits of the Spirit in my Bible). I am sure that Phelps and company believe that they are being persecuted for their faith; however, as I’ve said before and will say again, you are not being persecuted if people hate you because you’re a jerk. So again, you’ve got to “count the cost.”

And, it appears the cost of being a jerk is up to $11 million.

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2 Responses to Westboro Baptist learns the cost of free speech

  1. Living around the other side of the planet means that I am somewhat isolated from the darker side of American fundamentalism – although we have our own expressions of it here in Australia but, I suspect, not to the same degree.

    All I can say in this case is that, if Phelps takes the Gospel records seriously, Jesus must be a huge embarrassment to him, given the people with whom Jesus associated.

    Mike Robinson

  2. I would hate to see the Westboro church go insolvent because of this. They are bad, evil, people that “know” deep in their hearts that they have the right and duty to cause deep pain to a grieving family.

    I think that someone, if not Phelps, has a serious mental illness. Most of the rest of the family, raised in a compound seems to be suffering from a group mentally that doesn’t have any way of checking the mentally of Phelps or the other “leaders” of this group. I think that this jury award is akin to suing someone who yells fire in a crowded theater.

    Was it Holmes who said “You’re right to free speech stops where your fist ends and my nose begins?”

    Perhaps this suit will at least slow the WBB stupidity.

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