Westboro Baptist Church: the right to free speech?

In 2011, the US supreme court ruled in favour of the anti-gay church’s right to protest at military funerals, writes Casey Selwyn.

The case

The Westboro Baptist Church is a small, independent church based in Topeka, Kansas, led by the America pastor Fred Phelps. The church espouses extremist views, and has become well known for picketing military funerals and claiming that soldier casualties are the God-sanctioned consequence of a war aimed at punishing the “evil nation” of the US. Its website, godhatesfags.com, claims that the WBC conducts “peaceful demonstrations opposing the fag lifestyle of soul-damning, nation-destroying filth”. The church held its first service in 1995, and began its demonstrations in 1991. It claims to have conducted 48,341 pickets to date.

Despite its small size, the church has sparked interest and ignited controversy, and was the subject of the 2007 Louis Theroux BBC documentary entitled The Most Hated Family in America. In 2011, the family of an American serviceman whose funeral had been boycotted attempted to sue Phelps in the case of Snyder v Phelps, but the US supreme court ruled eight-to-one in favour of Westboro on appeal. This case provoked debate among scholars and the general public, as people questioned whether limits to free speech might be appropriate when applied to such demonstrations.

Author opinion

The Westboro Baptist Church’s views and activities are, in this author’s opinion, abhorrent. However, I support the supreme court’s ruling in favour of Westboro in the Snyder case, and more generally support the right of such a group to exist. Demonstrating at funerals does inflict more extreme emotional damage upon victims’ families than other forms of free speech, but the recourse should not be limiting the right of these groups to protest. Firstly, there exist limits on the proximity of such protests to funerals, which I believe should be upheld in order to maintain a level of respect for the funeral process of aggrieved families. Secondly, the recourse, rather than limiting the right to protest, should be the vigorous protest against such protests as well as vocal public dissent. In this way, the court case proved to have some favorablue outcomes for those opposed to the church’s activities. Even though the ruling was in favour of Westboro, that the suit occurred in the first place brought the issue into the public realm, and provoked strong public responses against the church.

- Casey Selwyn

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Free Speech Debate is a research project of the Dahrendorf Programme for the Study of Freedom at St Antony's College in the University of Oxford. www.freespeechdebate.ox.ac.uk

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