Sunday, October 10, 2010

Do rights of the Westboro Baptist Church circumvent the rights of the grieving?

The Supreme Court last week heard arguments regarding the First Amendment rights of the Westboro Baptist Church (WBC). The group is notorious for going to soldiers' funerals and holding protests near their proceedings, holding signs with hateful words such as "God Hates Fags" and "Thank God for Dead Soldiers."

The WBC believes that God is punishing soldiers and Americans overall because of the nation's tolerance for homosexuality, abortion, and other hot-button issues. Every death caused, the group warns, is simply God showing he is angry with our ways.

The WBC is taking advantage of a Constitutional amendment that was designed to protect many forms of speech, but specifically political speech. The WBC is free to make their own speech as well. But critics wonder whether the right to invade a semi-private venue to express that speech -- such as a funeral -- is itself protected.

We see it all the time, actually: permits are required to hold a rally in downtown Madison, for example. Both major political parties have, in the past, set up "free speech zones" in order to cordon off dissent at their respective conventions. Would it be wrong to prohibit hateful speech at or around a person's funeral? It seems like, compared to the other methods of suppressing speech mentioned, the suppression of speech that causes emotional distress at a family funeral would be more just, if anything.

Think about it: if during a eulogy, a person out of the crowd started screaming obscenities, it wouldn't be wrong to remove that person -- they are disturbing the peace, disturbing the often-times religious ceremony of the family that is trying to say goodbye to a loved one. Why aren't the religious rights of these families of military men and women being considered?

The Constitution is clear on the rights of the WBC -- they're entitled to speak their minds and to promote their message. But doing so during a ceremony honoring a departed family member surely violates the rights of that family, to some extent religious rights and to another extent "unspoken" rights that are rarely articulated.

The Constitution, in fact, discusses such rights, through the Ninth Amendment, which states that the people retain certain privileges even if they aren't codified through law:

"The enumeration in the Constitution, of certain rights, shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people."

Certainly a case can be made that a father has a right to say goodbye to his son without interference from hate groups that consider his son's death something worth celebrating.

In this particular case, we might not see such an outcome: Al Snyder didn't actually see the protesters until he turned on his television set, and wasn't bothered directly at his son's funeral itself. But the Supreme Court ought to consider the rights of others who weren't so fortunate, who had to endure hate-mongers that were within screaming distance of their children's funeral services.

As far as rights not necessarily expressed, one I can support (and that I believe most everyone can as well) is the right to hold a ceremony honoring a family member without purposeful interference from outside individuals. States should be granted the power to uphold that right through legislation prohibiting protests at funerals. The WBC still can voice their opinion, but their right to do so at such an event, especially those honoring soldiers who died defending this country, ought to be restricted.

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