In commemoration of National Freedom of Speech week, two university professors discussed a recent Supreme Court case involving the Westboro Baptist Church and how the case relates to freedom of speech.
Walter Cronkite School Associate Professor Joseph Russomanno and a professor from the Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law, James Weinstein, discussed the Snyder v. Phelps case and how it relates to the First Amendment as part of the Must See Monday speaker series at the Cronkite School.
Snyder v. Phelps stemmed from the Westboro Baptist Church’s picketing at the funeral of Matthew Snyder, a 20-year-old marine who was killed in Iraq. His father, Albert Snyder, found the protest to be a disgrace and sued Fred Phelps, the pastor who heads the church, for intentional infliction of emotional distress. Snyder won the initial trial, but Phelps won the corresponding appeal. The case was then appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court.
The Westboro Baptist Church, located in Topeka, Kan., consists of 70 members, who are almost all blood relatives. Russomanno described their unique religion as “radical fundamental Christianity.”
The group protests against various issues, including homosexuality, military support and even support for their own country.
“They are against all other religions really,” Russomanno said. “Catholicism is high on their list of things that they are against. They are anti-anything that they are not.”
At the picket for Snyder’s funeral, the Westboro Baptist Church protesters remained 1,000 feet from the entrance of the church, making their protest a legal occurrence.
“Their picket was peaceful,” Russomanno said. “It contained what some people would regard as offensive language, but it was peaceful.”
The signs the picketers flaunted contained vulgar language, as well as the use of the term “you,” which Albert Snyder believed was a direct attack on his family. The flashy signs also attracted a large amount of media coverage.
“They crave it,” Russomanno said. “They live for it. What they are about is getting a message out – getting the word of God out.”
In the court hearing, the issue of whether intrusion had even occurred was a central topic of discussion. Albert Snyder had not seen the protesters’ signs until he saw coverage of the protest on television, showing the protesters were abiding by their First Amendment rights.
Weinstein emphasized how the court could have been wrong in its ruling in favor of the Westboro Baptist Church. Because of the court’s decision, Weinstein said individuals now not only have the right to express their thoughts, but also receive the right to use offensive terms.
“It is doubtful that any other nation on earth would protect such outrageous expression,” Weinstein said.
Because of the recent Occupy Phoenix movement, the protections under the First Amendment are even more relevant to the local community.
“On the face of it, it seems that the protesters do not have a First Amendment,” Russomanno said in regards to the treatment of protesters by the police.
Brian Wise, a journalism junior, said he enjoys attending events similar to Monday’s discussion because it increases his knowledge of current events.
“People should hold government accountable to every degree,” he said. “It doesn’t matter how obnoxious the claim is. It makes me feel a sense of pride that the Supreme Court ruled in that way.”
Jasmine Barta, a journalism freshman, was intrigued by the Westboro Baptist Church’s application of the First Amendment.
“It was really interesting how the Westboro Baptist Church used the First Amendment to their advantage, although what they were doing may not be considered right,” Barta said.
In the end, it should be emphasized that the First Amendment was initially developed “to hold those in power accountable for what they do,” Russomanno said.
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