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The Mass Media

The Mass Media

Does the First Amendment Apply to the Westboro Baptist Church? It Should

Mourners formed a wall to keep out the WBC from the funeral proceedings of the Marathon Bombing victims
Mourners formed a wall to keep out the WBC from the funeral proceedings of the Marathon Bombing victims



The aftermath of the April 15 bombing of the Boston Marathon and the ensuing manhunt and capture elicited just about every type of emotion from observers, beginning with fear and despondency, developing into anger, and culminating with jubilation and relief following the capture of the second and final suspect.

In the emotional fray following the unprecedented attack, the heightened sensibilities of the nation, but especially those in the Boston area, were immensely offended by the Westboro Baptist Church’s pronouncement that they would be picketing the funerals of the victims of the bombing.

For those who are unfamiliar, the Westboro Baptist Church is a religious organization based in Kansas, founded and headed by Fred Phelps and mostly comprised of his extended family. Their aberrant Christian theology is based on the belief that God is not merciful and loving, but vengeful and vindictive, and the ills of the world are the direct result of human sin.

The Boston bombing, in their view, is divine retribution for American immorality, and therefore the mourning of the resulting deaths is blasphemous impiety.

The WBC has been promulgating their repugnant views since 1955. Their campaigns and picketing have garnered national attention and landed representatives of the church on prominent talk radio shows to rationalize their insane beliefs, or more commonly, to condemn the hosts and networks for their sinful ways.

One of their most publicized and most odious practices is the picketing of military funerals for soldiers killed in Iraq and Afghanistan, an act that has led to widespread calls for censorship of the church and revocation of their First Amendment rights.

Similar calls abounded in Boston when the church’s plan was made public. A petition circulated Twitter and other social media outlets calling for the banishment of the WBC from the city of Boston, and large groups threatened retaliation against picketers. The notion that any group would protest the funeral of innocent people, including an 8-year-old, is abhorrent, and the movement to ban the WBC is well-meaning and wholly understandable.

But repulsive as the rhetoric of this so-called “church” may be, proper recourse is not to restrict the First Amendment.

One of the founding principles of this country is the protection of political speech, especially for those groups representing a minority opinion. Some opinions, like that of the WBC, are reviled by public opinion, but as long as they do not incite violence with their words, they are afforded protection by the most sacred right delineated in the Bill of Rights.

The First Amendment applies to all parties equally: the WBC’s right to free speech is the same as yours and mine, and its limitation anywhere is a threat to civil liberties everywhere. 

The church has been subject to legal action in the past for its protests, but the Supreme Court case Snyder v. Phelps, in 2010, ruled in favor of the WBC, with the majority opinion upholding the Church’s free speech rights “notwithstanding the distasteful and repugnant nature of [their] words.”

The demonstrations by the Phelps clan are egregious and hurtful, but their actions are legally protected. Attempted litigation has not only been unsuccessful, but has served the ends of the church by increasing their visibility throughout the country. This may even be drawing more warped souls into their ranks instead of confining such chicanery to a fanatical family in rural Kansas, and certainly increasing awareness of their twisted beliefs.

Instead of being denied their constitutionally protected rights, they should be free to engage in their protests and subsequently be marginalized by public opinion. The outpouring of support for the families of the victims of the bombing has been heartfelt and inspiring, unchanged by the demonstrations of a lone coterie of nut-jobs.

The reactions we should be focusing on are the majority of the country’s outpouring of empathy and stories of courage and selflessness. By emphasizing those and repudiating or simply ignoring the WBC, their loathsome agenda is relegated to obscurity with their rights in tact.