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Posted at 2:37 PM ET, 03/ 2/2011

The Westboro Baptist case: Testing the limits of free speech

By Peyton M. Craighill

A new ruling from the Supreme Court on Wednesday protects the First Amendment free speech rights for the Westboro Baptist Church. Polling data on the extent of free speech rights may back up this ruling in the abstract, but maybe not specifically for this case.

A poll last summer from the AP, GfK and the National Constitution Center found that by a very large margin people believe that free speech rights should be protected "even if they take positions that seem deeply offensive to most people." Fully 70 percent sided with unfettered free speech rights and only 28 percent said that people should have the right to say what they believe, except when those statements might be deeply offensive.

The case involves a tiny church that has made a practice of demonstrating at funerals of U.S. soldiers killed in action, reasoning that military deaths are God's retribution for the expanding acceptance of homosexuality.

Their demonstrations have featured signs that read "Thank God for Dead Soldiers," and "God Hates Fags." It might be a stretch to find many people who would agree with this line of reasoning or the appropriateness of such a venue for spreading their word. But a nearly unanimous Supreme Court ruled that such demonstrations are protected under the U.S. Constitution.

Q: Do you think freedom of speech should mean that people should have the right to say what they believe...

70% Even if they take positions that seem deeply offensive to most people, OR

28% Except when they want to say things that seem deeply offensive to most people

What do you think? Leave us your comments about how far we should go in protecting free speech.

By Peyton M. Craighill  | March 2, 2011; 2:37 PM ET
Categories:  Gay marriage, Supreme Court  
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Comments

I fully understand that the WBC has been given the "win" in the court case because of their first amendment rights. BUT I just feel as if what they have done at funeral processions is NOT OK. Personally if my son or daughter was gay I would be completely fine with that. And to know that someone could picket at my child's funeral if they were to pass away would infuriate me to my boiling point. They are human beings and deserve to rest in peace. Although with signs, chaos, and overall negativity being thrown everywhere would be a contradiction...just my opinion

Posted by: Rohora1 | March 2, 2011 3:41 PM | Report abuse

"The biggest modern error in understanding freedom of speech comes from viewing it as a right to be heard (or seen) in every imaginable situation. Such was never the purpose of the constitutional freedom."

http://federalistblog.us/2008/10/freedom_of_speech_and_of_the_press.html

Posted by: JASinAZ | March 2, 2011 5:16 PM | Report abuse

Westboro can make their message public in any number of ways: newspapers, internet, radio, television, pamphlets, or demonstrating in the public square. Their free speech rights are protected, but what they are doing is harassment of families at the funeral of a loved one. Rights are not one-sided. One person's rights are limited by the rights of another person. All of us have equal rights as citizens, but the court ignored the rights of a mourning family to have a funeral in peace.

Posted by: allamer1 | March 2, 2011 11:10 PM | Report abuse

Just one question:

Why where the protesters at the G20 conference in Pittsburgh not afforded the same First Amendment rights??

Guess the elite have different laws!!

Posted by: bkarpus | March 3, 2011 5:07 AM | Report abuse

It seems here that many people are missing the point of the ruling. The terrible messages on the church's signs are irrelevant; if the church had signs that read "God Bless Your Son," the case would have never gotten to the Court.

Instead, the church was being punished in the form of a lawsuit for the content of their message, and it is well-settled law that Americans cannot be punished for the content of our speech (unless it falls into one of the very narrow categories of libel and slander or obscenity). As the Court has said many times--just as Justice Roberts did in the opinion--even speech that is hurtful or offensive is protected by the First Amendment.

Posted by: ProfJeff | March 3, 2011 7:26 AM | Report abuse

While I agree with the decision, if someone shoots one of these protestors at a funeral demonstration and I was on the Jury for the shooter I would never vote to convict. There are actions that may be Constitutionally protected but so far beyond rational behavior that a community can by jury nullification say "enough".

Posted by: Tuerke9 | March 3, 2011 8:02 AM | Report abuse

While I agree with the decision, if someone shoots one of these protesters at a funeral and I was on the jury for the shooter I would not vote to convict. While there are some actions that may be Constitutionlly protected they can be so far beyound a community's standards that the only thing you can do is by jury nullification say "enough".

Posted by: Tuerke9 | March 3, 2011 8:08 AM | Report abuse

There's not much point in having a First Amendment if it only protects that which does not offend us.

Posted by: BuddyK | March 3, 2011 8:09 AM | Report abuse

I believe in freedom of speech but, what Westboro Baptist Church did, is a distortion of the constitution. So, there are a few major question that i would ask the Supreme Court, it says in the constition that you have freedom of speech in public, how in the world is a soldiers funeral public? I was under the assumption that a funeral is a private gathering for friends and family of the deceased, to lay them down to rest. If it is not private by law now, the least that the Supreme Court could do is to make the funerals private by law so they can not protest against soldiers who help defend the very rights that the Supreme Court has, especially at their funeral. If you remember when Bush was campaigning, it was a public affair and somehow despite the protestors being protected under the constitution;freedom of speech, the protesters were arrested and thrown out, in some circumstances for just wearing a shirt that was against the party. To me it just seems to be unfair, Why cant the goverment protect the right to a private funeral for all our soldiers, without protest? They did it for Bush who was just campaigning and the protestors there were far less of a threat than the protestors at Westboro Church. I think the people of America need to write the president and urge him to address this issue.

Posted by: mariminer | March 3, 2011 8:31 AM | Report abuse

I believe in freedom of speech but, what Westboro Baptist Church did, is a distortion of the constitution. So, there are a few major question that i would ask the Supreme Court, it says in the constition that you have freedom of speech in public, how in the world is a soldiers funeral public? I was under the assumption that a funeral is a private gathering for friends and family of the deceased, to lay them down to rest. If it is not private by law now, the least that the Supreme Court could do is to make the funerals private by law so they can not protest against soldiers who help defend the very rights that the Supreme Court has, especially at their funeral. If you remember when Bush was campaigning, it was a public affair and somehow despite the protestors being protected under the constitution;freedom of speech, the protesters were arrested and thrown out, in some circumstances for just wearing a shirt that was against the party. To me it just seems to be unfair, Why cant the goverment protect the right to a private funeral for all our soldiers, without protest? They did it for Bush who was just campaigning and the protestors there were far less of a threat than the protestors at Westboro Church. I think the people of America need to write the president and urge him to address this issue.

Posted by: mariminer | March 3, 2011 8:32 AM | Report abuse

Just one question:

Why where the protesters at the G20 conference in Pittsburgh not afforded the same First Amendment right??

Guess the elite have different laws!!

Posted by: bkarpus | March 3, 2011 1:04 PM | Report abuse

Why is this first amendment issue getting so much press attention? True, these horrible people have the right to their hateful speech. You would think that the Julian Heicklen case in Florida where a judge is suppressin­g the first amendment rights to what is clearly political speech might be of some interest to the main stream media. (http://www­.nytimes.c­om/2011/02­/26/nyregi­on/26jury.­html?_r=1&­partner=rs­s&emc=rss)
Apparently the hypocrisy of the main stream media knows no bounds.

Posted by: givensdan | March 3, 2011 3:40 PM | Report abuse

As a dedicated liberal I can't believe I am
on the same side as Justice Alito on this
particular issue. But never in a million years did I feel these lunatics would win this case. The eight justices in favor of this decision are lacking common sense. If this cult wishes to protest at a military cemetary, that's fine. But not when a family is dealing with the private
tragedy of the death of a loved one who
decided to risk his life in defense of his
nation. Free speech should be honored, but
using free speech to knowingly harm another
brings no honor to our nation, nor to those
eight justices.

Posted by: andyleheny | March 3, 2011 6:38 PM | Report abuse

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