Funeral Award Violates Free Speech

My first reaction to this news about a huge jury award against a church that had protested at the funeral of a fallen soldier, was “Good.” But my second reaction was more measured.

Sure, what the Westboro Baptist Church did at the funeral of Matthew Snyder, a Marine killed in Iraq. Westboro believes that the deaths of soldiers are the direct consequence of America’s tolerance of homosexuality and gays in the military. The church is known for protesting a funerals of fallen soldiers carrying placards that read “Thank God for Dead Soldiers” and other messages along the same lines.

The jury had found the Westboro Baptist Church liable for invading the expectation of privacy of the soldier’s family and intentional infliction of emotional distress. I am not sure whether the full verdict will hold up on appeal because I am not sure that the family had an expectation of privacy in a public place, but they may still prevail on the intentional infliction of emotional distress.

This is why I am so torn about this case. The church and church members have a legitimate right to free speech and I will defend their right to be idiots, zealots and bigots despite my belief that they are wrong. However, while I don’t think the family had a legitimate reasonable expectation of privacy at a funeral occurring in a public place, I tend to think that we can’t just give people a free pass on free speech grounds for the consequences that their speech may cause. But by the same token, free speech isn’t free if we hold people accountable for words that are not libelous or slanderous.

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While as a military man, I don’t think Westboro should be exonerated, as a ardent believer in the First Amendment, I think they are entitled to a reversal on appeal.

Sometimes free speech hurts, but as I have said before, freedom of speech is not about the speech we all like, it is about the speech that makes our blood boil and you can’t abandon the ideal when it suits your world view.

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