Tuesday, May 13, 2008

westboro baptist church

It is difficult to discuss the first amendment rights of the Westboro Baptist Church because, before we may do so, we must separate the content of the message from the offense. Of course once we do this, our argument against the church begins to fall apart.

The first thing we must agree upon is that our sensationalized corporate media landscape paints a distorted image of the funeral protests. That is not to say that I agree with the message of the church, nor with the tact with which the message is delivered. My point is simply that it is difficult to maneuver the maelstrom of hate and outrage that our subject creates. It is difficult to look through the opinions and find the facts, to see the objective reality of the situation that we feel so objectionable.

We are here today to discuss the law and it is not the function of the law to decide which is obscene or in bad taste. So let us discuss the facts.

The protests occur on public property. Technically, the Westboro Baptist Church does not protest at funerals. They protest near funerals, at pre-designated spaces that have been permitted by city counsel prior to the event. Although a landslide majority of the public would like to silence the church, we must also recognize the church’s legal right to peacefully assemble.

There are no documented accounts of violence on the church’s behalf, physical or otherwise. The church may have a message of hate, but they do not direct that hatred at any specific individuals. The church paint their portrait of hate by drawing on abstract concepts.

Fagots are to blame, they say, for God’s hatred. It would be a different situation if the church was to address someone like Snyder by name. But this is not the situation.

For those who are not familiar with Snyder’s case, he is the man from Maryland who was initially awarded $11 million by a jury for emotional distress caused by the church. This ruling has since been reduced in half by the judge on grounds that the jury’s decision was both unreasonable and unconstitutional. Experts on the first amendment expect the ruling to be reversed entirely as it ascends to the Supreme Court.

I would like to bring to light information that I scoured, cited to an article in the Baltimore Sun. The city permitted protest of Snyder’s son’s funeral was 1000 feet away from the funeral. Snyder did not see the protestors on the day of the funeral and did not see them until he saw the report on the television news. Unfortunately, I have been unable to acquire this article because it is no longer hosted on the newspaper’s official website. If this fact is true, it would ruin the prosecution against the Church because it would remove the offense away from the site of the funeral and onto media airwaves.

In closing arguments, I must convey that I disagree with the church on many levels. To say the least, the Westboro Baptist Church is off the mark. We would almost be better of if only the church had never formed. Unfortunately, they are here and we cannot silence them on basis of content because there is some truth within their fallacious arguments. That is not to say that there is any truth in their faith or vulgar commentary on American culture. But if I could rewrite the wording of the Westboro Baptist Church message, I would say that soldiers, foreign and domestic alike, are fighting and dying to preserve an American way of life. The Westboro Baptist Church identifies this American way of life as homosexuality. You and I might identify the American way of life in a different light. However, I believe that we can all agree – you, me and even Fred Phelps - that we have fallen onto challenging times and we should take this opportunity to reflect upon our American way of life and decide which values are truly worth fighting for. I believe we can come together here, that freedom of speech, no matter the consequences, is one of those values.

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