Westboro First Amendment too important

Published 12:02 am Sunday, March 13, 2011

Mississippians know the solemnity of a funeral. As a procession, usually led by police escort, winds its way through the city streets, vehicles pull to the sides of roads. With headlights on, the procession passes as onlookers freeze, many with hands over their hearts. It’s a Southern tradition like no others.

Mississippians also know of sacrifice. Some of those passing processions carry a fallen member of the United States military. We are patriotic, flag-flying Americans who know and understand the sacrifices put forth by our men and women. We lift them up when they return and share in a family’s grief when lives are lost in protection of the freedoms we hold so dear.

In those freedoms, a framework of a nation was built. Nearly 227 years ago, wise men drafted and adopted the United States Constitution mapping the course for a new nation, built on individual liberties and freedoms. One built on the notion that individuals have the right to live their lives and succeed or fail on their merits and hard work.

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In that document exist 26 amendments, the first 10 being the Bill of Rights. First among those reads: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”

For those Mississippians who stop, hand over heart, the practice of making a mockery of a funeral, particularly that of a military veteran, is sickening. A group of wayward fanatics from Kansas, with a membership of about 50 mostly family members and known as Westboro, has done just that.

On March 2, the United States Supreme Court found, in an 8-1 decision, that the group has the right, because of the Constitution, to protest. The lawsuit that was decided by the highest court in the land was brought by the parents of slain Marine Matthew Snyder, killed in Iraq in 2006. Westboro protesters carried signs and chanted, but they stayed within the prescribed boundaries for protests. Snyder’s parents claimed intentional infliction of emotional distress.

Chief Justice John Roberts, penning the majority opinion for the court, wrote: “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. On the facts before us, we cannot react to that pain by punishing the speaker. As a Nation we have chosen a different course — to protect even hurtful speech on public issues to ensure that we do not stifle public debate.”

In the dissent, Justice Samuel Alito wrote: “In order to have a society in which public issues can be openly and vigorously debated, it is not necessary to allow the brutalization of innocent victims.”

Our hearts go out to the Snyder family and future families who will have to stomach the actions of a small group on the fringe who cannot see or refuse to acknowledge the solemnity of a funeral. Groups such as Westboro will continue protesting the funerals of the same military men and women who provide the blanket of freedom under which they protest. Such cruel irony.

In America, though, agreeable speech needs no protection; hateful speech does. Stomach-turning as it might be, it’s the glue that holds this Republic together, advances the human condition further than any other nation and is still the envy of the world.