Debate: Should Westboro Baptist Church be allowed to protest funerals as free speech?

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Westboro Baptist Church was recently allowed to continue protesting funerals, including military funerals, in an 8-1 decision. Should protesting funerals be considered free speech?


You know what's funny? (and sad) The same fallacious, idiotic, progressive thinking behind abortion is at work allowing Westboro to do what it does. That people should be able to do whatever they feel like and their freedoms allow them to harm others. That sort of progressive "openmindedness" was behind the Supreme Court's decision that Westboro should get to go to funerals and emotionally assault the deceased's loved ones. That they should get to spread their vitriol into the public sphere. It's the same concept as abortion. That people should get to do whatever they want with their bodies (whether their wombs or the bodies holding their protest signs) no matter who else get hurts. This doctrine of "do what feels right no matter who else's rights you abuse" is patently stupid when you look at it frankly. The abortion rights movement says you should be able to kill whatever children you want. Westboro says you should be able to emotionally abuse whoever you want with words and signs. This kind of openmindedness goes beyond common sense.

True common sense is that your rights are in fact privileges and do NOT include the right to harm others. Your right to throw a punch should stop where another's nose begins. You should not have the right to yell fire in a crowded theatre, to slander others, to yell profanities in public near children. You don't have a right to harm others in the privacy of your own home or your own body. You don't get to use your body to punch or assault people, whether with a fist or your words. If you want to use your body in private that's one thing but when you use it in the public sphere inappropriately where others are negatively affected, that's gone too far, because your freedoms are now being used to infringe on the freedoms of others. Freedoms in private are not the same as in public, or they shouldn't be. People should be able to figure this out. Common sense. --Jzyehoshua 08:29, 22 July 2012 (EDT)

I don't agree with any of that. For a start I think its people committed to free speech that let it happen, not liberals, not conservatives; just people who happen to believe that freedom of speech is something worth preserving. Also, I happen to agree that if people want to go around protesting their beliefs they should be allowed to do it, no matter how distasteful it may be to me or you or anyone else. For mine, the only thing that is too far is if they were to actively entice violence because then it moves from speech to action. Westboro people have been very careful not to cross this line. If you wanna live in a free country you have to take the good with the bad. Gotta take your lumps. --DamianJohn 08:43, 22 July 2012 (EDT)
Disagreed. People can have free speech to protest but there are logical limits that shouldn't extend to, and that includes funerals. A famous judge once declared that the right to freedom of speech does not include the right to yell "Fire!" in a crowded theatre and I'm inclined to agree. Freedom to speech should not mean freedom to say whatever we want, it should not be unlimited, and should have reasonable limits, namely those where other's rights are infringed upon. And logically, going to funerals and protesting harms the families of the deceased. It harms public decency sensibility, as much as yelling profanities in public before a small child. Both should be wrong. Protecting freedom of speech should not include protecting the right to harm others with that speech. --Jzyehoshua 08:58, 22 July 2012 (EDT)
It's ironic that people think a right to privacy should include the right to kill one's children in the womb past the 21-week period where children have been born prematurely and lived, but not to be left undisturbed from funeral protesters. Protesting a funeral is extremely offensive and inherently indefensible. It's an invasion of privacy as much as bursting into a home. There are cases where commonsense dictates a right has gone too far and will necessarily be used for evil, and protesting at funerals is one such case. --Jzyehoshua 09:04, 22 July 2012 (EDT)
See, at some point, you have to draw a line where speech is wrong, or allow evil possibly as great as if there was no free speech at all. Both extremes are wrong, too much free speech unrestricted, and no free speech at all. Would you say the following should be permitted without restriction under the concept of free speech?
  • Slander.
  • False Advertising.
  • Yelling fire in a theater when there's not so people stampede and get killed.
  • Imitating someone a person cares about and telling them to commit suicide.[1]
  • Shouting profanities at little children in public.
  • Telling trade secrets to another company in exchange for compensation.
  • Talking with terrorists about how to plot an attack on innocent people.
  • Telling U.S. secrets to another country.
Do you see what I mean? These are all examples of "free speech" but speech most people could agree shouldn't be allowed as legal. Somewhere you've got to draw a line. You can say people have a right to their own bodies too, but obviously this shouldn't include the right to expose themselves in public, physically assault others, kill others in the privacy of their homes or wombs, etc.
My point is that there's an underlying truth behind all of this that shows where the line is for such freedoms, and where it is crossed. Once your rights go from affecting just yourself to affecting others, they may be going too far. Once your rights start infringing on the rights of others, it's time to reconsider them. That's why abortion is wrong. The right to one's body and privacy infringes on the right to life of another person. That's why free speech can be wrong - it infringes on the rights to privacy and the pursuit of happiness of other people. Likewise with guns - you have a right to use them yourself, but not to harm others without cause, infringing on their rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
It's just common sense. The personal rights of a person should not infringe on the inalienable rights of another person. Otherwise it's time to talk about revoking them. And I argue that protesting at a funeral infringes on the rights to privacy and pursuit of happiness of other people. That the Supreme Court couldn't understand this vital distinction speaks very poorly for them. Our country is in a sad state of affairs when its judges don't have commonsense to discern between good and evil. --Jzyehoshua 17:03, 22 July 2012 (EDT)

A famous judge once declared that the right to freedom of speech does not include the right to yell "Fire!" in a crowded theatre and I'm inclined to agree.

Whenever I am involved in a discussion about free speech and someone quotes that line I always ask the person if he or she knows what the case was about, what was the reasoning behind the decision was, and whether that person agrees with the decision. I think that is one of the most appalling decisions ever laid down by a superior court and I think a lot of people quote bits of it without actually having read it. I suggest you have a read of the judgment before you quote it because I am pretty sure you would disagree with it once you do.

As for the examples you give, Westboro perform no action that is analogous. The hold protests and express their religious convictions, but as far as I am aware they never cross the line from speech to action. --DamianJohn 17:54, 22 July 2012 (EDT)

Speech is an action that can be used to harm others, as seen from the examples I gave of slander, false advertising, giving away trade secrets, telling others to commit suicide, etc. Their speech crosses the line because it impacts the rights of others to privacy and pursuit of happiness. You have a right to protest, but not to stalk someone else's funeral and protest there. There are some circumstances just blatantly inappropriate and protesting a funeral is an obvious one. There's a difference between preaching something is wrong in church and going to somebody's funeral and boasting that they are dead.
Once speech is used to infringe on another's rights, something has to give. Inalienable rights can only be inalienable for all if they are not always rights, but privileges to be revoked once those rights are used to harm the rights of others. To use a famous cliche, "Your right to throw a punch stops where another's nose begins." Your right to your own body or own speech should not include the right to harm another's right to their body, speech, privacy, life, and pursuit of happiness. If you're using your rights to harm others, one side or the other has to lose their rights.
That's why someone who uses their right to privacy and their body to murder someone in the privacy of their home can be placed in prison and lose the rights to their privacy and body. That's why someone who abuses freedom of the press by slander can have their freedom of speech removed and be barred from the press. Your rights cannot harm others or they are not being allowed to have rights as well. Freedoms are merely privileges that go only so far as another person's freedoms. Westboro is inappropriately using their freedoms to attack others, both with words and in court, to abuse the system and deliberately harm others. They need to be stopped and shut down. Their rights are going too far and harming those of everybody else, as well as our very nation. --Jzyehoshua 18:12, 22 July 2012 (EDT)
I guess we are never going to agree on this. I would say to your comment "There's a difference between preaching something is wrong in church and going to somebody's funeral and boasting that they are dead." that I don't think there is any difference. I say this with the one proviso that the speech should not be inciting violence against anyone because that then becomes an action punishable because it serves to reduce someone elses right to non violence. One does not have the right to not have people say things that are hurtful or that they disagree with. --DamianJohn 18:19, 22 July 2012 (EDT)
It's frankly not their funerals, so why should they have a right to protest it? Funerals should not be considered public events, but private ones, and protests of them at or near the locations in public as violation of privacy. It causes emotional distress to the families of those who died. I guess that's a big distinction for me. Protesting at a public courthouse or other area should not be the same as protesting at a funeral. I suppose it "might" be more understandable if it was a funeral of someone related to you, because then at least there would be explanation for why you're involved. But picketing at random people's funerals is absurd and offensive and abusive of the freedom to speech. I'd support Westboro and all related members having all right to picket and protest removed because of that abuse. --Jzyehoshua 18:25, 22 July 2012 (EDT)
I also think double damages should be given to all the people and communities sued by Westboro, too. Westboro's been using this faulty legal understanding to reap monetary damages as surely as any thief. I say we should abide by the 1682 Province of Pennsylvania statute, that any people wrongfully accused are to have double damages against their accusers.[2] --Jzyehoshua 18:28, 22 July 2012 (EDT)
The problem you have is that neither the courts, nor a majority of the US public agree with you. The Supreme Court has said that people are allowed to protest funerals if they like (in an 8-1 decision) and 70% of people said in a poll that free speech should be unfettered, even when the comments are deeply offensive. [3] I will not debate this further because I can see there is no hope of convincing you, but you should be aware that people of all political stripes have considered the issue and believe they are not doing anything that should be legally punished. --DamianJohn 18:40, 22 July 2012 (EDT)
From what I can tell, there's never been a poll asking whether it's alright to protest at funerals. Do you have a source for one? The poll you cited only showed that people support offensive free speech, not the right to protest at funerals. I think I will contact Gallup and see if they can run a poll on this because we really need one. I can't tell what American opinion on it would be. --Jzyehoshua 18:48, 22 July 2012 (EDT)--Jzyehoshua 18:48, 22 July 2012 (EDT)
Offensive free speech could be considered to mean simply preaching against homosexuality in church, and of course should be permissible. That's an entirely different thing from protesting at funerals. Here are some polls that actually address that subject:
Question: Are protests at military funerals a form of free speech?[4] Response: 8% Yes, 91% No, 1% Not Sure.
Question: Should protests be allowed at military funerals?[5] Response: 9.64% Yes, 90.36% No.
Question: Should military funeral protesters be protected under the First Amendment?[6] Response: 9% Yes, 89% No.
Question: Does the First Amendment protect protests at a military funeral?[7] Response: 16.67% Yes, 83.33% No.
Question: Should protests at military funerals be permitted?[8] Response: 18% Yes, 82% No.[9]
Question: Should groups be prohibited from protesting military funerals? Response: 24% No, 76% Yes.
3 of the 5 polls agree that roughly 90% of Americans recognize protesting at funerals should NOT be considered a 1st amendment right. Two other polls are 82 and 83%, the last is still 76%. Unfortunately, Supreme Court justices lack the common sense of 80% of Americans.
I also found this poll of 77% [10] but don't include it because of just 9 votes. This one (76%) doesn't say how many people voted.[11] When any sizeable amount of people votes, the result appears to be roughly 82-90% that agree funeral protests are wrong. --Jzyehoshua 18:54, 22 July 2012 (EDT)
Well alright, but an 8-1 decision in a Supreme Court is pretty rare and shows a pretty wide legal consensus. You can't blame it on liberals, and liberals can't blame it on conservatives. I must say I am rather surprised and disheartened by the stats you have shown, but I guess (from my point of view anyway) that it shows the benefit of an entrenched constitution - principles are principles regardless of what public opinion would have us do. --DamianJohn 19:21, 22 July 2012 (EDT)
True, but legal consensus in this country has become something of a problem, as courts regularly override the will of the people. For example, a few California Supreme Court judges repeatedly overturned the will of millions of California voters who'd voted for propositions against gay marriage. Californians voted to define marriage as between a man and a woman on both propositions 8 and 22. As the Brothers Winn would mock (funny video by the way), "That’s right, 4 judges, vs. 4.6 million voters, and the judges won! 'That’s because they’re judges.'"[12]
I believe our Constitution was meant to uphold the will of the people. As our Declaration of Independence declares,
That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, — That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.[13]
To quote the Brothers Winn again from the same video,
It’s a dangerous thing to be happy about this kind of cavalier legislation from the bench. It’s tempting for some people to believe that the ends justifies the means. But that is just not true. It’s only a matter of time before something you don’t approve of takes the same backdoor approach, overturning laws and making changes that undermine the will of the people.[14]
According to the Declaration of Independence, governments "derive their just powers from the consent of the governed" and "whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government". Government according to our founders was intended to represent the will of the people. That was the moral basis for us being able to leave England in the first place. And if our government continues to abuse the will of the people on this and other issues, then according to our own founding documents, they have the right to replace it with a whole new government should they choose to do so. --Jzyehoshua 19:38, 22 July 2012 (EDT)
You are forgetting that a major reason the US Constitution was drafted the way it was is to prevent the tyranny of the majority, whereby the majority of the people could simply enforce their viewpoint on the minority who could do nothing about it because of their lack of numbers. Specific principles were enacted that were considered to be inalienable regardless of what the majority thought. One of those principles was freedom of speech and it matters not what the poll says; so long as the US is governed by its constitution that principle will not be taken away. In this respect the constitution differs from other countries, such as mine, whereby the duly elected parliament has no legal restrictions whatsoever on legislation it can enact. --DamianJohn 20:06, 22 July 2012 (EDT)
I don't believe the Constitution was drafted to prevent tyranny of the majority. We had a representative democracy because they wanted to prevent mob rule - you couldn't have direct democracies back then because the way votes worked was literally to get a huge mob of people rampaging through the countryside all fired up. It was peer pressure to an extreme. But with our technology today allowing voting in a booth quietly, or even from phones on things as trivial as American Idol, that's no longer an issue.
When you look at history, I would argue the greater, more serious threat has almost ALWAYS been from tyranny of the MINORITY, not the majority, with a few dictators suppressing the rights of the vast group of people, contrary to their will. You are going to have risk of tyranny either way, but the more just and defensible position is to let the majority decide, since it is more difficult to corrupt many people than a few. --Jzyehoshua 20:13, 22 July 2012 (EDT)
I don't think so. In the 1960's the majority of people in the Southern States wanted to keep a certain population from being able to vote in state elections. Should they have been allowed to discriminate like this, or should they have been forced to abide by the rules of the constitution which said that every person regardless of race is allowed to vote. If we are going to go by the majority rules principle they would not have been granted their rights to vote. --DamianJohn 20:18, 22 July 2012 (EDT)
Which again relates to several principles I already brought up though:
1. Everyone should have certain inalienable, equal rights to life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness.
2. Noone should have the freedom to intrude on these rights of others lightly.
Also, that would be a national issue. If put to a national vote for majority rule, I am confident the majority would have declared they should have the right to vote. The South was always vastly outnumbered by the North and had far fewer people if counting Whites only. In a majority rules national vote, I don't see any way it would have won such a vote. --Jzyehoshua 20:24, 22 July 2012 (EDT)
As seen here[15], 55% of Americans approved in the 1960s of the Brown v. Board of Education ruling to strike down segregation with only 40% disapproval, and in 1964, 62% favored President Lyndon B. Johnson's decision to remove segregation in public establishments and only 27% disapproved. In a national vote, the public would have overturned segregation just like the courts did. --Jzyehoshua 20:29, 22 July 2012 (EDT)
That's not the point (and I think you know that). Had a majority of people voted to deny them rights, they would not have had any recourse under your proposal (other than rebellion). On the other hand, the system whereby the Constitution specifies certain rights that can never be taken away by a legislature or an executive protects these rights, even if a majority of people would want them removed. It doesn't always work perfectly (ie the internment of US citizens during WWII based on ancestry) but it is designed to insulate a country from the views of a fickle majority. You have specified two principles that you like, but there are others and one of them is the right to free speech. --DamianJohn 20:31, 22 July 2012 (EDT)
But the hypothetical case is irrelevant since a majority of the people WOULDN'T have voted to deny them rights at the national level. This proves an excellent case showing the will of the people was best and supported a correct interpretation of freedom, rather than an incorrect one. --Jzyehoshua 20:33, 22 July 2012 (EDT)
Not really, because if you put a referendum in Alabama "Should black people be allowed to vote in Alabama statewide elections" they would not have won. Under what authority can the Courts override this view of the people by enforcing federal legislation that gives them the right to vote? I suggest it is the principle that where state legislation contradicts the Federal Constitution, the states legislation is void. Otherwise the Constitution would be worthless and pointless. In any case I think we have both made our points. There isn't much point in dragging this out further. I shall let the readers decide. --DamianJohn 20:44, 22 July 2012 (EDT)
In Alabama specifically perhaps, but if the voting on that included blacks, even that might not be certain. Again, if you put it to a national vote, it would have been 55% to 40%, and maybe more like 60-65%. I would argue the principle is rather that presented in the Declaration of Independence, "that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights".
I was just looking at Japanese internment though, and the polling there might better fit your case that sometimes public opinion can include mistreatment of minorities.[16] I don't think the African American civil rights era supports the case, however. --Jzyehoshua 20:48, 22 July 2012 (EDT)
However, I am confident that for every single case you find of a minority's rights being abused by the majority, ten cases can be found for a minority's rights abusing the majority's. Cases of abusive dictatorships oppressing their people are numerous and constant throughout history. Majority rule has been a very rare phenomenon, and thus far looks quite promising given its experimentation in American politics, when it's allowed to occur. --Jzyehoshua 20:52, 22 July 2012 (EDT)