Free Speech and the Gospel of Hate

October 6, 2010 Update: I am no longer a Kansan (moved to Kansas City, MO in June). The Supreme Court heard arguments on this case today. Heard that they may consider the personal nature of these kinds of protests and weigh them against the rights afforded by the first amendment. How do you think they should rule?

Sara Phelps, shown in May 2006 in Shumway, Ill., holds signs during a protest by followers of the Rev. Fred Phelps, who claims soldiers have died because they fought for a country that condones homosexuality. (James A. Finley, Associated Press / May 19, 2006)
March 10, 2010: One of the sad things about being a Kansan is knowing that Fred Phelps is also a Kansan. Soon he will be a Kansan appearing before the Supreme Court of the United States. According to this Kansas City Star article:
The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday agreed to hear a case involving Fred Phelps and his Topeka congregation, whose protests at military funerals have angered families across the country.

The court said it would consider an appeal from the father of a slain Marine who hopes to reinstate a $5 million verdict against the Topeka-based Westboro Baptist Church.
“It’s freedom of speech to some,” said Snyder, whose son Matthew was killed in Iraq. “To me it’s not what my son fought for. They’re kicking people in the face when they’re already down on the ground. All I was trying to do was bury my son.”
Shirley Phelps-Roper, a church leader and daughter of Westboro founder Fred Phelps, said her sister Margie Phelps is likely to argue the church’s case before the Supreme Court. Shirley Phelps-Roper and Margie Phelps are licensed attorneys.

Phelps-Roper said it’s God’s will that the church gets to appear before the nation’s highest court. Regardless of the ruling, she said it’s a “win-win” for the publicity-hungry church.

“You know how hard we’ve worked to get in front of them?” she said. “We came to the kingdom for this hour.”
Ugh.. what can I say about this? What would I say to one of the justices if they asked me for input concerning this first amendment issue?
  • Firstly, the actions of these religious folks are the opposite of everything I think Jesus Christ represents.. they preach a gospel of hate.
  • Secondly, I believe that our nation must stand with fallen soldiers and their families in their grief and pain.. these sacrificed all for their country.
  • Lastly, I feel that there must be a direct linkage between the issue being protested and the object of the protest. Given that there is no direct linkage between fallen soldiers and the homosexuality this group protests I think that the high court should rule against Fred Phelps and his followers.
The gospel of hate needs a kick in the pants. I am hoping that the Supreme Court gives it one.  What kind of advice would you give the high court?


  1. Firing squad? Um, no that wouldn't be right. But seriously Our right to free speech does cover nut jobs like these guys, but you're right there are limits. Where those are is always a tricky business. Honestly I'm not sure where those lines are here.

  2. As much as I hate it in this case, free speech is free speech. Everyone has a right to protest - even if its stupid. The only way to stop this is if people and media ignored it. But that offers no comfort for the families hurt by this tactic. I think these soldier's families need some sort of justice in this, but I'm not sure what. I want to pray that God will "smote" them - but then I'd be no better than they. Sometimes freedom sucks.

  3. Bob,

    I hate to have to say this. But, not knowing the details of the case I don't see how you could bring a case against these whackos. If they are on public property and are not disturbing the peace, they should be allowed to hold whatever stupid signs they want to hold. Unless they libel or slander specific soldiers, I don't think we can use the force of law to stop them.

    I know in some places motorcycle gangs have stood in front of the Phelps nuts to block the views of their signs. I think counter-protest is the way to go here. That, and stop giving this small group of idiots time on national TV to spread their message.

  4. Interesting feedback so far. Do you all feel that the right to free speech covers protesters that would picket your home (on the public sidewalk) if you wrote a blog that they did not agree with? It seems like that would make more sense because there would be a direct linkage between what you did and their actions.

    In the same vein I could see these folks picketing the funeral of a general who was instrumental in the establishing of a pro-homosexual agenda in the military.

    In my mind this sort of "free speech" should only be protected when there is direct linkage. In the case of these soldiers it simply does not exist.

  5. I wonder if signs like this wouldn't constitute a sort of hate crime?

    Personally, I think there ARE limits to free speech (though the boundaries of these limits are challenging to define). Otherwise I could string together profanity, use words to incite violence of some sort, etc.

  6. Bob,

    I don't know that there is a requirement in the law for "direct linkage" or how that would be defined. I also don't know how public permit requirements for a protest might play in. I know there are limits to assembly without a permit in most places. But, in general, it seems to me that you can say what you like in a public place no matter how offensive or irrelevant that thing might be.

    As for someone protesting on the sidewalk in front of my house, I might not like it. But, as long as they were not violating a noise ordinance I'm not sure there would anything I could do about it.

  7. Sue, certainly there are limits to free speech. Libel and slander are two examples. Verbal threats are even off limits. But, the limits are pretty broad and we cannot simply say any speech we find distasteful or offensive or that we disagree with is off-limits. To be a hate crime, something has to first be a crime.

    These people are expressing their view of G-d and their country. They believe their country (and its proxies- the soldiers) are being judged for accepting homosexuals. Their god is a violent, angry, judgmental god- thus you get these angry, judgmental people.

    As much as I hate what they say I think we have to tolerate it. Soldiers funerals should be held where the Phelps nuts can be kept as far away as possible and I would definitely support efforts to block their message as much as (legally) possible.

  8. My take from the comments is that most folks would advise the high court to allow the harassment of the families of fallen soldiers in the name of "free speech".

    There does seem to be a victim in this case.. the Snyder family was victimized by hate speech at one of the darkest times in their family. Seems that the court should find a way to protect these victims from hateful acts such as these.

    I have buried several family members and I simply cannot imagine how these hateful protests would have affected me in those sad times. In my mind the courts need to rule for the victims.. and not hide behind the rights of the abusers.

  9. Bob,

    I don't know the particulars of the situation with the Snyder family. I agree that it is despicable that the Phelps clan would do these things at a time when the soldier's families are so vulnerable. And, perhaps in civil court, they could sue for the emotional damage caused by what the Phelps clan is doing.

  10. These people are fanatics... Their words are outrageous, disrespectful to God and to people. But we MUST respect free speech. Sure, we can probably agree that their speech is wrong and hateful, but where does it end? What happens when someone comes into my church and decides that a sermon about homosexuality is hate speech? We need not look too far to see this already happening.

  11. ...of course, I'm just talking about the speech aspect. That fact that these lunatics did this at funerals is surely some sort of invasion.

  12. @MTR - yes, the idea that they picketed at a "private" event does seem to be somewhat of an invasion of privacy.

  13. I guess the question is, "Who decides whether or not there is linkage?" You and I agree there is no linkage, but the Phelps people declare there is.

    I can see how in almost any controversial issue, there would be differences between one group's opinion of "linkage" and another's.

    So maybe the linkage idea doesn't form a solid base for denying free speech. I might wish it did, but still . . .

  14. @Joe - Seems like the court or the entity issuing the permit could decide. Agree that it is pretty controversial. It will be interesting to see what the SC does.

  15. I'd say remember that attacks against an individual are different than political speech. Especially if that person was not a public figure.

  16. That was a good video you linked to Meg! Thanks for sharing it and your comment. I agree with your perspective on political/public vs personal/individual attacks.

  17. For the first time I can remember, I find myself agreeing wholeheartedly with Brian. Can't add anything to what he has said.

  18. Just an after-thought about this -

    Doesn't it seem weirdly ironic that the freedom that is insured by the sacrifice of soldiers is used to mock them when they make the ultimate sacrifice?

  19. Yes, Bob. It is ironic that people take advantage of the freedoms of our country to criticize our country (soldiers included).

    I understand and I agree with your emotion. I find what Phelps does hateful, disgusting and would love to stop it. But, we have to be careful whenever we are limiting any freedoms. That doesn't mean we can't/don't limit them just that we need to proceed cautiously.


  20. I'm with missy here. I don't want us to go down the road to allow speech's intentions to be applied to a situation to say, "well, that speech is pertinent to the issue, so we will let it go, or that speech isn't relevant". As always, it comes down to who do we end up leaving in charge of interpreting whether it is pertinent....the government. Why give them such subjective power.

  21. Also, hooray for the motorcyclists that block these bozos out.

  22. Ironically, the soldiers who are being denigrated by this church group died for the right of free speech. I wonder if that thought had ever dawned on them?

    This church group doesn't limit their demonstrations to soldiers. Two years ago they demonstrated at a funeral in west Kansas of 4 high school girls killed in a car wreck. I think they indicated it was a sign from God of his displeasure with society and homosexuality. No tie-in here at all.

    Europe currently has laws against questioning the number of deaths in the holocaust. Some scientists and historians have argued that something less than 6,000,000 Jews died, and by means other than gas. Several men are currently in jail for this, because the court maintains that their speech dishonors the dead and could promote emotional suffering for survivors.

    The U.S. does not have such laws, but we have extradicted two German men to Germany to face charges over there, one a scientist and one a historian/writer. Both received jail terms of about 5 years. No outward crime was committed, no harrassment of people, no shouting at funerals, just writing and speaking about their scientific and historical opinions. Does our extradition of these men indicate agreement?

    Applied to the Phelps family, it seems to me their shouts at funerals could definitely cause emotional suffering for the families of fallen soldiers. Where does freedom of speech end? Logically, there must be a limit somewhere. I don't want to limit the Phelps right to have their say, but I think time and place must have some bearing on that. You can yell "fire" in an open field and there is no problem with that. Yell it in a crowded theater (when there really isn't a fire) and I think you might find yourself in trouble.

  23. This just in from the local news station. Sad that justice can cost a lot of money.

    "Albert Snyder, whose son was killed in Iraq won a $5 million verdict against Phelps for protesting at his son’s funeral in 2006.

    When the verdict was thrown out on appeal, the court ordered Snyder to pay $16,510.80 to Phelps for costs relating to the appeal. The order came in spite of the U.S. Supreme Court’s agreement to review the Court of Appeals’ decision.

    Sean Summers, a lawyer for Snyder, expressed disappointment that the court did not wait until the High Court’s ruling to make its decision regarding legal costs.

    No timetable has been set for the legal costs to be paid, but Summers says that if his client does not have the money when Phelps requests payment, Snyder could lose his property or his wages.

    Snyder is also struggling to come up with the fees associated with filing a brief with the U.S. Supreme Court.

  24. in cases like this Bob, i give thanks that there is an even higher court that people like phelps must one day face.

  25. Phelps is a nutcase. It's not just soldiers they go after - they even protested Billy Graham on his last visit to KC. Just seeing Graham in a stadium here, yet in recovery from an illness, was overwhelming. I could sense all this man is today because of how he has lived his life in humility and obedience to the Lord - yet here is the Phelps crew lined up at the entrance into the parking lot with their disgusting signs, and to what end? A disgrace.


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