Amy Gehrt: Right to free speech extends to us all

Amy Gehrt

A recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling ignited debate anew over whether members of a small Kansas church have the legal right to protest outside of soldiers’ funerals.

Albert Snyder sued Fred Phelps’ fundamentalist Westboro Baptist Church — made up mostly of Phelps’ own family members — after the group showed up to protest during the military funeral of Snyder’s son, Matthew.

By an 8-1 vote, justices ruled that the so-called church’s provocative protests — numbering in the hundreds — were protected as free speech under the First Amendment.

Like the vast majority of Americans, I find Westboro members’ actions abhorrent, and their hate-filled contention that God is punishing the U.S. military for the nation’s tolerance of homosexuality despicable. I don’t think messages such as “Thank God for dead soldiers,” “God Hates the USA” and “Thank God for 9/11” have any place in a civilized society, particularly somewhere where loved ones are mourning a fallen hero.

I also find it sadly ironic that the reason these zealots are able to exercise their right to free speech at all is because brave American men and women throughout history have been willing to lay down their lives to defend that very right — as well as the many other freedoms we now take for granted.

At the tender age of 20, Marine Lance Cpl. Matthew Snyder paid the ultimate price in the name of his country, and the very least he deserved was to be laid to rest with dignity — surrounded by family and friends who were afforded the right to grieve in peace. How anyone can possibly attempt to justify intruding on such a private, emotionally wrought time is beyond me, and to do it in the name of religion is even more vulgar, feckless and inexcusable.

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

I agree with that sentiment, but I also believe speech, no matter how deplorable, must remain protected. If we narrow the scope of the First Amendment in one case it wouldn’t be long until the next challenge arose, and then another and another. Each would erode our free speech rights a little more, until ultimately we’d be left with a mere shell of the First Amendment.

In his opinion, 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. On the facts before us, we cannot react to that pain by punishing the speaker.”

Roberts is right. Fred Phelps and his fundamentalist sect are hatemongers, and, if we truly do reap what we sow, someday they will be held accountable for the pain and suffering they have intentionally inflicted on hundreds of decent, innocent American families. But they are also citizens of the United States, and that means they are entitled to the same rights the rest of us are — even if they are too self-centered and ungrateful to appreciate or even acknowledge the only reason they are able to spew their evil rhetoric without fear of reprisal is because of the sacrifices of the many heroes — past and present — who serve in our armed forces.

Amy Gehrt may be reached at agehrt@pekin?

The views expressed in this column are not necessarily those of the newspaper.