July 23, 2006


Unhallowed Ground

(Photo by A.J. Nelson)

...When the story of the Westboro Baptist Church began to gain momentum a few weeks ago, I was nearing the end of my first summer semester of graduate work and couldn’t make time to say anything about it. I’m still busy, but this morning I came across a headline in the Washington Post that has me wondering if the ACLU is now equating harassment with free speech.
...To preface this, the Westboro Baptist Church is the group whose claim to fame is chanting anti-homosexual slogans and holding signs reading “God Hates You,” “God Hates America,” and “God Hates Fags” at funeral services of slain military personnel from the Iraqi War. The fundamentalist group was eventually banned from protesting “in front of or about” any location where a funeral is held, from an hour before the service to an hour after the service ends. Offenders will be hit with fines and jail time.
...To conclude this preface, it’s also no secret that I’m skeptical of the ACLU as a whole, simply because of their continued support for violent sexual predators and child molesters. Yes, they’ve made a few good calls on issues like protecting medical records and even a few gun control laws, but it seems as if more and more they take one step forward and two steps back.
...This morning while perusing the Washington Post I found this headline: “ACLU Sues for Anti-Gay Group That Pickets at Troops’ Burials.” At first I was a little shocked, but that feeling wore off after about a nanosecond. The organization is saying that the Westboro Baptist Church’s First Amendment rights are being violated as the Missouri ban is being imposed on the basis of the messages’ content.
...Tara from Soul Blessings made an excellent point regarding the ethical side of the protests by saying:
The soldier did not start this war we are in. In fact, due to the current economy, many have even joined the military prior to this war as a means of financially surviving. Either way, soldiers serve a purpose, a deeper means. They put their lives on the line to keep us safe. Maybe we are wrong for being over in Iraq, but how is it justifiable for anyone to stand outside of a soldier’s funeral and criticize them for dying for our freedom? Furthermore, how can someone justify their own protest when they are arguing someone who is not even capable of defending themselves? Seems like a bit of a cop out to me. The energy could be directed in a much more positive and productive manner than picking at the deceased.
...I’m going to go one step further and argue that this isn’t even a free speech issue—it’s an issue of harassment. Allow me to explain.
...The Westboro Baptist Church members aren’t organizing protests in their local public parks or on their public streets as a general protest. They’re targeting specific individuals—fallen soldiers—and their families at funerals, which aren’t intended (since intent is important to the ACLU) to be “public” ceremonies. Let’s put it another way: If a member of the Westboro Baptist Church or ACLU were walking down the street and found themselves approached by groups of people with protest signs and screams, following them wherever they go, it’s not free speech; it’s a targeted form of harassment and stalking which would fall under already-established laws pertaining to such actions.
...This would also be true if anti-ACLU or anti-Westboro Baptist Church folks decided to protest at the funerals of members from either organization who might have passed away. Staging general protests of either group is one thing; only showing up at graveside services of deceased ACLU or Westboro members would be something else.
...With that out of the way, I thought that it should be noted that I came across an interesting piece of information via Common Dreams while researching this topic. It turns out that speaking freely isn’t something that the ACLU wants its own members to enjoy. From a May 24, 2006, New York Times story by Stephanie Strom:
The American Civil Liberties Union is weighing new standards that would discourage its board members from publicly criticizing the organization’s policies and internal administration.
“Where an individual director disagrees with a board position on matters of civil liberties policy, the director should refrain from publicly highlighting the fact of such disagreement,” the committee that compiled the standards wrote in its proposals.
“Directors should remember that there is always a material prospect that public airing of the disagreement will affect the A.C.L.U. adversely in terms of public support and fund-raising,” the proposals state.
...Protesting at fallen soldiers’ funeral services—where family members aren’t even necessarily supportive of the cause for which their loved one died—is nothing more than harassment. The Westboro Baptist Church has gone beyond protesting issues or causes by singling out specific people in situations where family members have little choice but to endure the taunts. As Tara pointed out, the primary target can’t even offer a defense because they’re dead. As such, they’ve crossed the First Amendment line and may have very well entered the realm of harassment.
...As for the ACLU, their primary objective is becoming more and more blurred. They’ve always been greeted with criticism from conservatives, but—especially considering their own in-house directives to keep quiet when board members harbor dissent—it should be difficult for liberals, libertarians, and anyone else supportive of the Constitution to withhold unfavorable reviews, too.


Blogger Elliot I. said...

Although we disagree on whether the ACLU should or should not have taken this case, I believe your thoughts on harassment are well-argued. It seems safe to say that Westboro is actively engaging in selective harassment towards military members and the gay community. I am not sure how that plays out legally, but it something to consider. My concern is that harassment, like this law restricting some speech rights, could be interpreted too broadly. Would the anti-gay base in Congress consider protests at anti-gay religious institutions to be religious harassment? I worry that the harassment argument could eventually play out as an unfair restriction on speech rights.

The balance between hate speech, harassment and free speech rights is a delicate one. I do appreciate posts like yours which help further these conversations... they are not talked about enough. More of my thoughts at News Fit to Post.

July 23, 2006  
Blogger J.P. said...

Thanks. You’re absolutely correct: the broadness of interpretation is where things often get ugly, especially if the concept of harassment becomes interpreted in ways which were never intended. It might be like the philosophies of “One man’s treasure is another man’s trash” or “One man’s freedom fighter is another man’s terrorist.” In this sense, one man’s harassment is another man’s free speech.

We’ll have to see how it plays out in court, and the possibility exists that court decisions are influenced by public discourse. Like you’ve said, conversations such as these always help.

July 23, 2006  
Blogger Legally Insane said...

good post...

July 25, 2006  
Blogger J.P. said...


July 25, 2006  

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