THE DAY LONG BEACH BEAT WESTBORO BAPTISTS AT THEIR OWN FREE SPEECHBy Dave Wielenga
The hardest thing to swallow about the Supreme Court’s decision to uphold the First Amendment freedom-of-speech rights of the despicable Westboro Baptist Church—which in March 2006 celebrated the funeral of U.S. Marine Matthew Snyder with signs like “Thank God for Dead Soldiers,” and “You’re Going to Hell”—is that it’s almost certainly the right decision.
“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,” Chief Justice John Roberts wrote for the majority in the 8-1 decision announced Wednesday. “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.”
As a city, the people of Long Beach spontaneously chose that course about a year ago when members of the Westboro Baptist Church popped up around town to wave their hateful signs at the Alpert Community Jewish Center, the Performing Arts Center, Bluff Park and Wilson High School. Rather than stifle public debate, people turned out by the thousands to deliberate.
Of course, the Westboro Baptist Church—basically, the wife, kids and grandchildren of Rev. Fred Phelps—doesn’t really debate public issues so much as seek attention for extreme points of view by throwing bad-taste parties. In the case decided by the Supremem Court, church members claimed that Snyder’s death proved their assertion that God is punishing the United States for its tolerance of gay rights by causing the deaths of U.S. service members in overseas wars, and they celebrated by showing up at his funeral to wave ridiculous signs and sing self-righteous songs.