McAlester News-Capital, McAlester, OK

March 5, 2011

Our view: Court ruling boosts Constitution, not Westboro

By Kandra Wells

McALESTER — This week’s high court ruling allowing protesters to loudly proclaim messages of hate and retribution during the funerals of fallen soldiers is hard to swallow. The pickets rank right up there with the burning of flags and crosses on a scale of things most of us find detestable. But when it comes to Constitutional guarantees, we have to take the good with the bad.

Just a few months ago we witnessed first-hand how some will twist “Freedom of Speech” to putrid purposes. We were there when propaganda skillfully designed to incite anger and protective righteousness was unleashed under the First Amendment’s guarantee. From the people chosen (women and children), to the slogans shouted (“God hates your son”), to the signs held high by elementary-age children (remember the stick-figure pictures denouncing homosexuality?), each element of the so-called protests tested us as journalists, as Christians and as Americans.

The Supreme Court on Wednesday upheld the right of Westboro Baptist Church to protest at military funerals with its virulent anti-gay message. The church provoked outrage in McAlester at a funeral for U.S. Army Sgt. Jason McCluskey, and across the country and along the political spectrum. The court ruled that the First Amendment protects even deliberately obnoxious funeral protests such as the church’s infamous “God hates fags” message.

“Given that Westboro’s speech was at a public place on a matter of public concern, that speech is entitled to special protection under the First Amendment,” Chief Justice John Roberts Jr. wrote for the majority.

The court’s 8-1 decision in Snyder v. Phelps shields the Topeka, Kan.-based Westboro church from being sued for intentional infliction of emotional distress despite speech that Roberts called “hurtful.”  

It makes the blood boil to hear those messages and it moved us as a community to turn out in support of Sgt. McCluskey and his family. All should be able to grieve in peace; that goes double for the families of those who died in service to our country.

But permitting such a repugnant group to cripple one of our country’s most fundamental principles lends it much more credit and potency than is deserved.

We seriously doubt the authors of our Constitution — and its amendments — ever imagined these specific challenges to the document. But we believe their intent remains at the heart of the Supreme Court’s ruling. And that is predicated on the right to free life and expression. It doesn’t matter that most of us don’t like what’s being said.