How much of a free speech purist are you?
You may be put to the test when answering that question as you consider a ruling today in Maryland against the notoriously anti-gay Westboro Baptist Church and its leaders, including Rev. Fred "God Hates Fags" Phelps. Phelps' protest outside of one soldier's funeral has cost him $11 million.
For my money, there's no question that Phelps and his followers are amongst the most uneloquent hate speech spewers in the United States. But is their right to say what they say - in this case, during a funeral on public property - also protected by the First Amendment? It's a delicate question for some, especially as today's ruling, if not overturned, could have far-reaching consequences on public protests, including anti-Westboro protests organized by the LGBT community.
Albert Snyder of York, Pa., sued Phelps and his "church" after Westboro'ers protested outside of the funeral for his son, Lance Corporal Matthew Snyder, who was killed in Iraq. The protest was not the first; the Phelps clan has been staging numerous protests at military funerals since the war began, insinuating that service member deaths are God's retribution for an America that welcomes LGBT people.
Several states, and the United States Congress, have passed laws limiting such protests at funerals. And reasonable people can probably agree that those protests are in poor taste . . . disrespectful to mourning families . . . and beyond the pale.
Today, a jury sent a resounding message of disapproval for the vile hatred put forth by Phelps and his followers. According to the Associated Press, "The jury first awarded $2.9 million in compensatory damages. It returned in the afternoon with its decision to award $6 million in punitive damages for invasion of privacy and $2 million for causing emotional distress."
Those damages, if upheld, will surely bankrupt Phelps and his church, and that is good news for champions of decency everywhere.
But here's the question: As repugnant as the protests are . . . are they unconstitutional?
The funeral protests took place on public property, meaning that today's ruling could set a precedent for limiting public protests or significantly penalizing protestors who upset attendees at public events. By extension, that could potentially mean a crackdown on pro-gay demonstrations at anti-gay events . . . hefty fines for progressives who upset conservatives . . . and a slippery slope for political demonstrations of all kinds.
Code Pink clearly recently upset Senator Robert Byrd of West Virginia during a Senate hearing. Could he sue the group for speaking out? And if LGBT demonstrators show up at an "ex-gay" conference, can conference organizers sue the protestors for inflicting distress on the "ex-gays?" And if we want to proclaim that "God Hates Phelps" outside a public protest by Phelps, would we be held financially accountable in a court of law?
I'm not a lawyer, but I have to assume that today's ruling could, potentially, mean yes.
Now, before the critical comments start flooding in, let me be clear: I'm as giddy as anyone that Phelps was smacked down in a court of law, and as sympathetic as anyone to the circumstances that led to a grieving father's lawsuit. But I do fancy myself a free speech purist, too, and I have to ask: Would another case, with the situation flip-flopped and in the hands of a not so humanitarian jury, result in an indistinguishable line between what is free speech and what is hate speech? And where will that line lead us?