The hateful signs and speech of the infamous Westboro Baptist Church have become synonymous with soldiers’ funerals.
As deplorable as their message is, it is protected under the First Amendment – and must remain so.
In that vein, the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals struck an appropriate balance in upholding Nebraska’s funeral picketing law as constitutional in a ruling released Friday morning. The 500-foot buffer allows funeral-goers space to grieve while not infringing upon protesters’ right to free speech.
Even the church’s despicable rhetoric merits protection. The First Amendment makes no distinction between popular speech productive to society and speech that is abhorrent. Celebrating the deaths of soldiers as some twisted sign that God is punishing the United States for tolerating homosexuality is certainly the latter.
The case that came before the court centered on the 2011 funeral of Navy SEAL Caleb Nelson in Omaha. There, Westboro members were still allowed to picket and share signs that read “God Hates Fags” with passersby. Nelson’s family and friends, meanwhile, could grieve without being forced to consume Westboro’s venom – as should be the case.
As Judge Bobby Shepherd wrote in the opinion: “The First Amendment guarantees free speech, not forced listeners.”
"This law strikes the appropriate balance between First Amendment free speech rights and the rights of grieving families to bury their loved ones in peace," Nebraska Attorney General Doug Peterson said in a release after the ruling.
Though first written more than 230 years ago, the First Amendment remains under a microscope for interpretation in the present era. The boundaries of speech and expression are always being pushed by a new group, aiming to win over hearts and minds, regardless of the content of that message – even if it’s one we wish could be silenced.
Part of the irony of Westboro’s ongoing crusade to parlay the deaths of soldiers into a megaphone for the church’s message of hate is that the freedoms for which these men and women fought and died still protect Westboro’s right to spread its vile opinions.
Judges and attorneys constantly have to take into consideration speech and dissemination the Founding Fathers never would have dreamed of seeing – and few entities are more responsible for that evolution than Westboro. After all, the church’s success in a previous court case invalidated Nebraska’s previous 300-foot buffer, which was replaced by the 500-foot limit upheld this week by the courts.
The outcome of Friday’s ruling was the best of both worlds – preserving families’ chance to grieve in peace without restricting Westboro’s ability to deliver its appalling message.