They won their right to protest, and I’m glad. It may be vile, but it’s free speech.
“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,” Chief Justice John Roberts wrote. “On the facts before us, we cannot react to that pain by punishing the speaker.”
But I’m going to go a step further and say that I’m also glad they get to continue protesting.
Why would I be glad about a group of crazies continuing to spout anti-gay filth in incredibly insensitive settings?
Because they are a stimulus that forces everyone else to react.
Folks who are anti-gay have to respond to Westboro by clarifying they are not that anti-gay. But of course, they are! And so often, the distinction is made in regards to Westboro’s rhetoric, but not their message. Anti-gay opponents don’t want to be associated with “God hates fags,” but it’s amazing how many stop short of saying “God doesn’t hate fags.”
I’m not alone in feeling this way about Westboro. A group called Phags for Phelps promotes the impact WBC has as a catalyst for LGBT equality. Shirley Phelps-Roper, herself, has made the case that anyone who claims to disagree with WBC has no business opposing same-sex marriage. In other words, you either oppose homosexuality like WBC does or you don’t oppose it. It’s a pretty worthwhile challenge for other anti-gay folks to respond to.
Shirley also points out that there was not nearly the same kind of outrage to WBC until they started protesting military funerals. Are people actually bothered by the fact that WBC is anti-gay, or just the fact that they disrupt military funerals? You don’t have to support the Phelps clan to make some pretty compelling arguments about how folks respond to them.
Justice Alito is no exception. A sensitive soul, he offered the only dissent in the decision, asserting that WBC did impose real pain on the Snyder family, regardless of how many laws they obeyed in the process. In making his case that the pain was “irreparable,” he offered this paragraph (p. 7 of his dissent, citations omitted):
Other signs would most naturally have been understood as suggesting—falsely—that Matthew was gay. Homosexuality was the theme of many of the signs. There were signs reading “God Hates Fags,” “Semper Fi Fags,” “Fags Doom Nations,” and “Fag Troops.” Another placard depicted two men engaging in anal intercourse. A reasonable bystander seeing those signs would have likely concluded that they were meant to suggest that the deceased was a homosexual.
This paragraph was presented in the context of making the case that WBC “brutally attacked Matthew Snyder, and this attack… was almost certain to inflict injury.” Is Justice Alito implying, then, that to imply an individual is gay is an injurious attack against that individual’s character?
Justice Alito would be saying (and I think he is) that being gay is a bad thing. After all, his argument is intended to defend the military family, not LGBT people. How can we not conclude that Justice Alito is homophobic?
The Phelps clan certainly do some harmful things, and I’m not condoning them. In fact, I don’t think anybody is. But they’re going to keep doing what they do, and I think it’s important to focus on the positive. The Westboro Baptist Church is a litmus test for homophobia. They’re the one group who doesn’t sugarcoat their rhetoric, and so we should use that to our advantage.
You don’t have to like speech to appreciate the value of upholding free speech.