The Dual Nature of Free Speech

A campus announcement on April 20 noted that the Westboro Baptist Church had been granted a permit from the city to picket in the public space outside of the main gates of Georgetown University on Monday, April 27 from 4:00 to 4:30 p.m.

Let’s get a few facts straight. Apparently almost anyone can get a permit from the city to demonstrate. Westboro has a habit of getting permits to demonstrate and never even showing up as they did with the funerals of the victims of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting and Reddit co-founder and programmer Aaron Swartz. They just love the publicity and attention.
What I am writing about here is one event at which Westboro did show up – the funeral of U.S. Marine Lance Corporal Matthew Snyder.

On March 3, 2006, Snyder was killed in a non-combat-related accident in Al Anbar Province, Iraq. Snyder was traveling in a Humvee that overturned. Snyder had volunteered to serve as a gunner doing convoy escort security. His service to his country is without question.

More than 1,200 people packed St. John Catholic Church in Westminster, Md. March 10, 2006 to pay their respect to Snyder. The funeral was marred by seven uninvited guests – members of the Westboro Baptist Church. The protestors didn’t know Matthew or his family – but they did know that he was a Marine, serving his country.

Among the signs (according to published reports) that protestors carried were: “Semper Fi,” “Thank God For Dead Soldiers,” “Thank God For IEDs,” “God Hates the USA,” “God Hates,” “God Hates You” and “Thank God for 9/11.”

The Snyder family found the courage to file a federal civil lawsuit against WBC. A federal judge in Baltimore upheld a jury verdict in favor of the family in the amount of $5 million, although the original jury verdict was greater than $10 million. An appeal by WBC to the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals resulted in the lower court decision being reversed. Not only was the decision reversed, but Snyder’s father, Albert, was ordered to pay WBC $16,000 for their court costs.

In October 2010, The United States Supreme Court agreed to hear the case and a large number of organizations filed legal briefs on both sides of what became a First Amendment issue. On March 2, 2011, the Supreme Court (8-1) ruled in favor of Westboro. Chief Justice John Roberts wrote that the First Amendment protects “even hurtful speech on public issues to ensure that we do not stifle public debate.” Justice Roberts went on to say, “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.”

Justice Samuel Alito was the lone dissenting voice, noting that “our profound national commitment to free and open debate is not a license for the vicious verbal assault that occurred in this case.”

As a university community, we must recognize the importance of free speech in the academic work that we do. Free speech allows us to share and exchange different opinions and viewpoints in and out of the classroom. We are better people because of it.
The bottom line is that while Westboro enjoys the right to demonstrate outside the Georgetown gates, members of the Georgetown community also enjoy the right to demonstrate and recognize the presence of Westboro for what it is – pure and simple hate speech.

Professor Thomas Cooke is a member of the Robert E. McDonough School of Business at Georgetown University.

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