When Free Speech Is Offensive

By , March 3, 2011 12:39 am

The Supreme Court ruled yesterday that the First Amendment protects offensive speech.

In an 8-to-1 ruling, the court said the hate-mongers from the Westboro Baptist Church have the right to spew offensive speech under the First Amendment.

Members of the church, led by Rev. Fred W. Phelps, have been picketing near funerals of U.S. troops. They say military deaths are caused by America’s acceptance of homosexuality. The case that was before the Supreme Court stemmed from the 2006 funeral of Marine Lance Cpl. Matthew Snyder, who was killed in Iraq. Members of the Westboro Baptist Church carried signs at his funeral that said, “Thank God for Dead Soldiers,” “God Hates Fags,” and “America Is Doomed.”

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What these this group is doing is horrible. As you saw from the NBC Nightly News story, they seem filled with rage. Margie Phelps, attorney and daughter for Rev. Phelps who was in the report, also¬†thanked Snyder’s father for filing the suit and “putting a megaphone to the mouth of this little church.” She said, “We’re going to picket more.”

But I agree with the Supreme Court decision and Chief Justice John Roberts. The picketing, he wrote, “is certainly hurtful and its contribution to public discourse may be negligible.” But he also wrote the government “cannot react to the pain by punishing the speaker.”

“As a nation we have chosen a different course – to protect even hurtful speech on public issues to ensure that we do not stifle public debate,” Roberts said.

Indeed. In some countries – even democracies in Western Europe – someone can be tried or sued for making hate speech, saying something offensive or even calling someone a derogatory name in a publication. People should act in a civilized manner, but the free exchange of ideas is important. Even if it means some ideas are bad, offensive or hurt someone’s feelings.

What do you think?

Do you agree with the Supreme Court decision? Should the members of the Westboro Baptist Church be allowed to yell, scream and hold up offensive signs at funerals? Do we need more limits on free speech?

Leave your thoughts below.

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One Response to “When Free Speech Is Offensive”

  1. Beth says:

    I totally agree with the ruling. The laws that give us our freedoms have to protect people with exceedingly bad taste, too. I would be tempted to go and protest the protesters, (silently) holding a sign in front of them that says something like “Is this how you’d like your family to be treated at your funeral? Just curious.”

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