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Gary Graham: Free speech 1, decency zero

Wednesday was a good day at the U.S. Supreme Court for the First Amendment, but it was a horrible day for common decency.

The court upheld the odious Westboro Baptist Church’s right to display hate-filled signs at the funerals for members of the military. Members of Westboro Church, the bully pulpit for the Fred Phelps family of Topeka, Kan., have picketed nearly 600 funerals in the past 20 years, spewing a vile message of hatred and bigotry. The congregation believes that God hates and punishes the United States for its tolerance of homosexuality, especially in the military.

The case before the court involved Westboro’s picketing at the Maryland funeral service in 2006 for Marine Lance Cpl. Matthew Snyder, who was killed in Iraq in the line of duty. The protesters, all relatives of Phelps, obeyed the Maryland law that required them to remain no closer than 1,000 feet from the church where the funeral was held. Snyder’s father took the church to court, arguing that the church intentionally inflicted emotional distress on him.

Some of the Westboro signs read, “Thank God for Dead Soldiers,” “Fags Doom Nations” and “You’re Going to Hell.”

Chief Justice John Roberts Jr., writing the majority opinion for the court, said:

“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. Such speech cannot be restricted simply because it is upsetting or arouses contempt.”

The First Amendment, of course, reads in part, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof, or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press.”

The court determined that the so-called “content” of Westboro signs addresses issues of public concern, such as homosexuality in the military and the political and moral conduct of this country.

As someone who has spent 38 years in the newspaper business, I have been well-served by the rights extended to the press and all citizens. Journalists don’t take the First Amendment for granted and we recognize the sacrifices people have made on our behalf to protect that freedom.

Readers may recall that Westboro sent representatives to our region last fall to spread their message of hate on some of our college campuses. I dreaded their visit then, just as I had dreaded the pending Supreme Court decision. I’m certainly no legal scholar, but I sensed the Westboro hatemongers would end up with a favorable ruling.

My experience with the Westboro Church goes back to my 13 years in editing work from 1984 to 1997 at the Wichita Eagle, the largest newspaper in Kansas. Members of the Phelps family, who had a reputation for being litigious, contentious and unreasonable, picketed the Eagle building one afternoon, spewing a message that time has allowed me to forget.

I happened to speak to a journalism class at Eastern Washington University last fall, a few days before the Westboro protesters were scheduled to visit. I was heartened by the response of the students, some of whom expressed disgust at the Westboro message yet understood their right to free expression. One or two students suggested the media ignore the protesters, a thread we also saw from some of the commenters on our website. While it is tempting to ignore the likes of the Westboro Church, most journalists believe the public and democracy are better served by shining a light on the dark side, exposing it for what it is.

Westboro’s insensitive tactics bring to mind an ugly chapter in American debate and politics. During the 1950s, when Sen. Joe McCarthy was branding countless people as communists, the U.S. Army legal counsel, Joseph Welch, castigated McCarthy in an exchange that applies to Westboro:

“Let us not assassinate this lad further, Senator. You’ve done enough. Have you no sense of decency, sir? At long last, have you left no sense of decency?”

I think we know the answer in Topeka.

Gary Graham is editor of The Spokesman-Review. He can be contacted at or (509) 459-5405.
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