By Sammi Davis
Edited by Fernando Aguilar
Late last week, Reverend Frank Phelps died. If you don’t know his name, then surely you know the organization he founded—the Westboro Baptist Church. WBC is known for their vehement hatred of homosexuality, which manifests in highly controversial and public protesting of funerals: funerals for dead soldiers, funerals for victims of AIDS, funerals for murdered gay youths.
After Phelps’ death Thursday, my first thought was ‘Thank God.’ It’s hard to feel bad wishing ill of the dead when that was all the deceased did during his own life. After scrolling through the comments of many articles, it’s clear that I was not alone with that sentiment. The WBC’s message was not popular; in fact, it was rather reprehensible to most of the public. Their message caused emotional harm to many. It brought intolerance and hate to the forefront of America’s consciousness. But even thought what they protested and preached was vile, we should all be thankful that it could be said.
Don’t misunderstand. I would never condone what the WBC preached or the manner in which they protested. But I do think they helped solidify America’s First Amendment rights—rights that are vital to all of us, but especially to members of the press. It’s easy to forget that was the underlying issue of the WBC’s right to protest homosexuality at funerals. If their protests were peaceful but their message was abhorrent, did they have the right to assemble under the first amendment even though their protests would cause intentional emotional harm to countless grieving individuals?
The answer in Snyder v. Phelps was a resounding yes (8 to 1): Phelps’ Westboro Baptist Church would be allowed to protest under the first amendment. Following this Supreme Court case, many states crafted bills prohibiting protests from occurring in public places near the location or timing of funerals. These bills, while potentially well intentioned, were poised to limit the speech of a specific group of people—something that we should all immediately fear. (Thankfully, these bills were not passed). Here’s the thing about laws: they don’t apply to just a specific group of people, they limit all of us. That’s why protecting free speech is so vital, even the hateful speech of the WBC.
“Speech is powerful. It can stir people to action, move them to tears of both joy and sorrow, and – as it did here – inflict great pain…
We cannot react to that 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,”
So, while I am disgusted by most everything Rev. Frank Phelps stood for in life, I am proud to say that I live in a country that protected even his opinion. And although he will probably live in the history books as the founder of one of the most preeminent hate groups in 21st century America, we shouldn’t be so quick to forget that his words helped remind a country of our first inalienable right—free speech.