Wilmer Leon III, a political science professor at Howard, disagrees with the Supreme Court’s decision in Snyder v. Phelps, which held that the reprehensible Westboro Baptist Church — the family of “God hates fags” infamy — was within their rights to protest at the funeral of Matthew Snyder, who was killed in a Humvee crash in Iraq, and that that protest did not violate the privacy rights of Snyder’s family.
The First Amendment prohibits Congress from making law abridging the freedom of speech, but this protection is not absolute. In 1919, Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. wrote, “Free speech would not protect a man falsely shouting fire in a theater and causing a panic.” It is always necessary to balance the content or nature of what is being said against the location where a particular statement is being made. In the theater, as at the grave site, causing panic and possible injury outweighs an individual’s right to speak freely.
Any reasonably prudent person understands that human emotion is in its rawest state at a funeral when a loved one is being laid to rest. For members of the Westboro Baptist Church to picket the funeral of a fallen soldier with signs stating, “Thank God for Dead Soldiers,” and “You’re Going to Hell,” could strike such a raw nerve that a member of the grieving family could be prompted to retaliate with a punch — or worse.
Even if the content of the Westboro Church’s speech were redeeming in any way, the timing and place of expression cannot be justified. Historically, the court has placed restrictions on the content of some speech and the manner of speech, as well. If individuals are prohibited from protesting on private property, private funeral services should also be protected.
Leon’s getting his facts mixed up here. The folks at Westboro Baptist didn’t picket at a “grave site,” nor were they on private property.
The demonstrators told police what they would do in advance, and obeyed every order the police gave them. The protest was staged on a plot of public land next to a public street. The Baptists were some 1,0o0 feet away from the church, separated from it by several buildings. They displayed their signs, sang hymns, read from the Bible, kept their voices down, assaulted no one, and stayed away from the church and its grounds.
When the Supreme Court recalled the case’s background in their opinion, [PDF] Al Snyder, the Marine’s father who brought the initial suit against Westboro Baptist, testified that he could only see the top of the protesters signs as the funeral procession left the church, and didn’t become aware of the nature of the protest until he saw the news later and went to the WBC’s website.
It goes without saying that what the WBC was doing was profoundly disgusting, as is their wont. But in this case, it seems as if they were within their rights to do so.