Hacking the Westboro church is not the way to counter its hate
The First Amendment does not empower anyone to hack into websites associated with the controversial Westboro Baptist church and the family members of founder Fred Phelps — even with the best of intentions. But that’s the latest development in the sad saga of that Topeka, Kan.-based church.
The 45 words of the First Amendment and its five freedoms — religion, speech, press, assembly and petition — do provide that you can:
- In whatever terms your religious faith provides, call for their eternal damnation for bringing more pain and sorrow to families facing the worst tragedies imaginable.
- Speak out and write against the sorry, sad tactics of this small group that claims deaths in Newtown, Conn., or in military service, or as a result of AIDS are God’s punishment for homosexuality or beliefs in creeds this “church” opposes.
- Gather in a group or as a single person to oppose the Westboro clan, or to call for reasonable time, place and manner restrictions to prevent unnecessary intrusion into the homes or religious services of grieving families.
Since the Phelps family began its attention-grabbing techniques of parading at the funerals of U.S. soldiers killed overseas, counter-groups have organized online and, at times, appear at the same funerals to offer contrary views to the Westboro signs that proclaim “God Hates Fags” and “Pray for More Dead Soldiers.” In more than 20 years the family has picketed at some 600 funerals, according to court documents.
There’s no question that the Westboro Baptist picketers are within their free-speech rights to proclaim their views as they choose. They are restricted only by reasonable limits on when and where they may appear in various cities — such as having to keep certain distances away from the homes of grieving family members or of funeral services. Such limits cannot be aimed principally at keeping the family members out of sight simply because communities find the Westboro message cruel or repugnant.
In 2011, the Westboro group prevailed in U.S. Supreme Court over a lawsuit brought by the father of a slain U.S. Marine. In Snyder v. Phelps, Chief Justice John Roberts said, “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.”
Roberts closed his written opinion for the majority by noting: “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.”
The crassness of the Westboro method of gaining attention — and its success in doing so — cannot justify shutting off the group from being heard, Roberts’ opinion noted, citing an earlier court decision: “In public debate [we] must tolerate insulting, and even outrageous, speech in order to provide adequate ‘breathing space’ to the freedoms protected by the First Amendment.”
News reports today said online assaults against the Phelps family were picking up steam, moving from action against the church website to taking over Twitter and other social-media accounts belonging to family members. The attacks began when the Westboro group pledged to appear at funerals of slain teachers and children in Newtown that began earlier this week. The group “Anonymous,” known for carrying out such cyber-assaults, and individual hackers were among those making threats.
Westboro hackers: Censorship of political or religious ideas is not justified, even in the pursuit of such worthy goals as comforting grief-stricken families and shielding them from callous and callow exploitation by a group that apparently backed away from actually appearing in Newtown, but now proclaims on its website that “God Sent the Shooter.”
A real debate over such a claim — and the principle of a “marketplace of ideas” on which the First Amendment’s freedoms rest — requires that more than a single voice be permitted to speak … or tweet, for that matter.
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The First Amendment Center is an educational organization and cannot provide legal advice.
Ken Paulson is president of the First Amendment Center and dean of the College of Mass Communication at Middle Tennessee State University. He is also the former editor-in-chief of USA Today.
Gene Policinski, chief operating officer of the Newseum Institute, also is senior vice president of the First Amendment Center, a center of the institute. He is a veteran journalist whose career has included work in newspapers, radio, television and online.
John Seigenthaler founded the First Amendment Center in 1991 with the mission of creating national discussion, dialogue and debate about First Amendment rights and values.
Dr. Charles C. Haynes is director of the Religious Freedom Education Project at the Newseum. He writes and speaks extensively on religious liberty and religion in American public life.
David L. Hudson Jr. is an expert in First Amendment issues and a regular contributor to the First Amendment Center's website. Hudson teaches law and was a scholar at the First Amendment Center.