Constitution Daily

Smart conversation from the National Constitution Center

C&D: The right to brutal speech?

March 10, 2011 by Sayeh Hormozi


On March 26-27, the National Constitution Center will host an interactive, interdisciplinary forum and workshop titled “Can We Talk? A Conversation about Civility and Democracy in America.”

Conference participants, drawn from such fields as history, political philosophy, political science, law, sociology, journalism, and communications, will explore both the historical and contemporary context of civility, dissent, and democracy.

As a warm up, we asked some of our guests: “A nearly unanimous Supreme Court ruled Wednesday that the First Amendment protects even hurtful speech about public issues and upheld the right of a fringe church to protest near military funerals. Do you agree with the court's decision? Or do you agree with Justice Alito's alone dissenting opinion that ‘In order to have a society in which public issues can be openly and vigorously debated, it is not necessary to allow the brutalization of innocent victims.'?”Few Americans find Westboro Baptist Church’s message attractive, but it is precisely the loathsome nature of their slogans that activate the need for First Amendment protections. No one needs protection to say “God Loves You,” but “God Hates Fags”? It is just this kind of offensive statement that the First Amendment shields.

The Court determined that Snyder v. Phelps was purely a freedom of speech issue, but I would argue that the free exercise clause adds additional weight to the decision in favor of Westboro. It is largely the religious nature of Westboro’s funeral protests that make them so inflammatory, yet that quality also affords enhanced protection under the principle of religious liberty.

Thomas S. Kidd, Senior Fellow of the Institute for Studies of Religion, Baylor UniversityFree speech and freedom of thought, religion, and press are essential to our democracy.  If any one of these is weakened then we jeopardize the right to dissent.  If we try to define what is “acceptable” and ban the Westboro Baptist Church’s hurtful speech as unacceptable, what would prevent us, at a future time, from narrowing the definition of what is “acceptable” and prohibiting the expression of all out-of-the-mainstream views?  Then we truly endanger the foundation of a robust democracy.  As hurtful as their speech is, we should not be bothered that a group of ill-mannered insensitive people is bent on exhibiting the extent of their intellectual shortcomings.  We have to have faith that good speech in the end drowns out the bad and that truth triumphs over ignorance; and that we are intelligent enough to distinguish between the two.Ralph Young, Professor (Teaching/Instructional), Department of History, Temple UniversityIt’s hard to imagine anyone supporting the warped views of the Westboro Baptist Church. However I must regrettably, yet strongly agree with the Supreme Court’s decision regarding their right to hold their protests during funerals and other events. While it may be popular to silence their hateful voices, such a move would open the possibility to restrict other voices whom some may disagree with. Where would it stop? Where would that line be drawn? The best way to deal with them is not to give them the media attention they crave. Of course this is easier said by one who doesn’t have to hear their ranting during the funeral of a loved one.  The result of suspending their 1st Amendment rights opens the possibility of other “popular” restrictions which could have dire consequences for democracy in the USA.Munir Kreidie, teacher Philadelphia public schools, actor.The Westboro Baptists, few that they are, represent a particularly vile subset of America.  However, that a message is distasteful, hurtful and outrageous doesn't make it illegal - or actionable, as was the claim in Snyder v Phelps.  The simple fact of the matter is that there is only one test for whether you believe in the 1st Amendment: Whether you still support the right of someone to speak when they say the most vile, evil, awful things.

Nobody ever tries to censor speech that isn't controversial, either with jail time or lawsuits.  You have the right to live your life in peace, but not to force others to shut up on public land.  You have a right to quiet enjoyment of your own property, but on public space, paid for with tax dollars, everyone has a right to speak as they choose.

The very fact that the 1st Amendment protects their speech in turn protects mine, including my right to express my opinion of the Westboro clan.   My son is currently serving in Afghanistan.  He took an oath to defend the Constitution and that means he is risking his life for those like Westboro to freely express their opinion.  It would be no way to thank my son for his service if that right had been stripped from Westboro.

Stephanie Jasky, Founder, Director,

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