Free Speech

April 20th, 2011

A Church, A Funeral, and a Supreme Court Decision

“Preserving a cherished right isn’t always pretty,” writes Sean Gregory of Time magazine. A recent Supreme Court ruling proves that at times, protecting the bedrock right of free speech can be downright messy. On March 2, the Supreme Court upheld a church group’s right to demonstrate at a military funeral. In the case, Snyder v. Phelps, the father of a soldier killed in Iraq sued Westboro Baptist Church of Topeka, Kansas, for intentional infliction of emotional distress and intrusion upon seclusion. A lower court jury initially awarded Albert Snyder $5 million in damages, but that decision was overturned by the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals. The appeals court ruled that the First Amendment protects Westboro’s free expression.

Snyder said that he sued to silence Westboro and thus protect other families from the same pain he and his family suffered. He believed that the protestors, holding signs that proclaimed “Thank God for 9/11,” “You’re Going to Hell,” and “Thank God for Dead Soldiers,” ruined the funeral of his son, Lance Corporal Matthew Snyder, who was 20 when he was killed in action in 2006. Snyder said that following his son’s funeral, held at a Maryland Roman Catholic church, he became depressed because the protestors’ words stuck in his mind. “To me, what they did was just as bad, if not worse, than if they had taken a gun and shot me,” Snyder told Time.

Chief Justice John Roberts wrote, “Whether the First Amendment prohibits holding Westboro liable for its speech in this case turns largely on whether that speech is of public or private concern.” The justices held that in this case, the protestors raised issues such as “the political and moral conduct of the United States and its citizens, the fate of our Nation, homosexuality in the military, and scandals involving the Catholic clergy.” In addition, the court ruled that Westboro did not intrude upon the Snyder family’s privacy. The demonstration was 1,000 feet away from the church in a public area under police supervision, and it did not interfere with the funeral procession.

Although Snyder hoped his lawsuit would silence Westboro, it may have actually had the opposite effect. Margie Phelps, the lawyer who argued the church’s case and the daughter of church founder Fred Phelps, promised they would stage four times the number of the protests. Her sister, Shirley Phelps-Roper, said, “It’s so impressive and amazing that it compels us to go quicker. This nation’s destruction is imminent.”

What Now?

The Supreme Court ruling raises the question that if the First Amendment protects even hate-filled expression, how do we respond to such rhetoric? In particular, how should Christians respond when protestors cause mourners pain and proclaim an understanding of God that radically differs from our own? As the March ruling makes clear, legal remedies are few, and First Amendment advocates assert that this is good. The First Amendment protects all of us, even if some speech turns our stomachs.

“When faced with unpopular views or unrefined speech, members of the public may ask, ‘Why doesn’t the government do something about that?’ The answer? Neither government nor a majority of the public has the authority to stop an unpopular idea,” asserts Education for Freedom, a nonpartisan foundation dedicated to free press, free speech, and free spirit for all people. “Because the First Amendment belongs to everyone––to each individual––it encourages us to respect the right of others to hold their viewpoints and religious beliefs. The First Amendment protects minority viewpoints and helps us to understand that limiting the rights of some people may eventually limit the rights of all.” According to the Freedom Forum, “the antidote to distasteful or hateful speech is not censorship, but more speech.”

Love God and Love Neighbor

A scribe once asked Jesus which commandment was greatest. Jesus answered him, “You must love the Lord your God with your whole heart, with your whole being, and with your whole mind. This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: You must love your neighbor as you love yourself” (Matthew 22:37-39, CEB). This two-fold commandment, love God and love neighbor, is a succinct guide to the Christian life. In his General Rules of Our United Societies, John Wesley stated that followers of Christ are to do “no harm.” These twin principles help to shape how we act, especially in response to those with whom we disagree.

Christian Responses

Several years ago while I was the pastor of a church in a small town, I got a call from someone who threatened to picket the church on a Sunday morning. The caller was upset because he believed that a local business had not dealt fairly with him. He was targeting the church because the business was owned by a family who were members of the congregation. How would I respond? I was trained as a journalist, and so I value the protections of the First Amendment. As a Christian, I wanted to be loving to the caller, to the family who owned the business, and to the congregation as a whole. As a United Methodist, I wanted to follow John Wesley’s guidance and do no harm to anyone involved. I managed to talk him out of his planned protest, not by threatening to call the police or warning of a lawsuit or pleading with him not to disrupt the church’s ministry. Instead, I listened to him. I asked, “What would you accomplish with this protest?” I helped him think through what he really wanted and to consider other options, options that would be more likely to help him reach his goal.

At Elizabeth Edward’s funeral last December at a Raleigh, North Carlina, United Methodist church, protestors from Westboro Baptist Church were greatly outnumbered by people with a very different message. A “human buffer” of people stood out in the rain, singing Christmas carols and carrying signs that read “Hope,” “Grace,” and “God loves Elizabeth Edwards.”

Last January, Westboro also sent protestors to United Methodist-related American University. The United Methodist campus ministry at the Washington, DC, institution decided to respond. The ministry sponsored a prayer and healing service the night before Westboro’s scheduled protest. “I used the opportunity to talk about love, not as an emotion, but as a way of living. Something we can choose,” said Mark Schaefer, the United Methodist campus minister at American. “We get locked in cycles of hate and violence and are called to step out of that cycle and follow the Gospel, which is one of a radical, inclusive love that can change the world itself.” The day of the protest, the four Westboro members who made the trip were greeted by more than 1,000 American students and residents of the community. The campus ministry handed out more than 500 cups of hot chocolate. Each cup was adorned with Bible verses and statements of God’s love.

What Can We Do?

As Christians, what are we called to do when we are confronted by people who are intentionally antagonistic? While we cannot control another person’s actions, we can control our reaction. The forum for our response varies. We may post on a social media site; write a letter to the editor; or say something at work, the gym, church, or other setting. But what do we say? What do we write? How do we evaluate our own public discourse?

As Christians, before we express ourselves, we need to ask: Is it loving? Does it do no harm? Is this something that I would say, write, or do if I knew Jesus was right beside me? We may have the right to say just about anything (see the sidebar “The First Amendment” on page 4 for restrictions to the right of free speech). But just because we have the right to free speech, that does not mean everything we could say is necessarily the right thing to say. As Christians we are called to practice love of God and neighbor. If we view our discourse in the light of this biblical teaching, we are likely to respond in a way that is not harmful.

Be sure to check out FaithLink, a weekly downloadable discussion guide for classes and small groups. FaithLink motivates Christians to consider their personal views on important contemporary issues, and it also encourages them to act on their beliefs. The complete study guide accompanying this article can be purchased here.

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