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Freedom of speech, however abused, must be protected

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Picketing at a funeral takes a special caliber of person. One of those oh-so-righteous types – so crazed by their own sense of morality and so sure they alone are carrying out the will of God that they spread hate and animosity instead of the more fruitful bearing seeds of Christianity – love and forgiveness. I believe it to be true that we reap what we sow. And in this sense, I pity those protestors because to interrupt a family’s funeral for the sake of trying to make a point – no matter what the point – is to purposefully invite a whole lot of ugly into your life.

The United States Supreme Court has an interesting case on their hands. Do they protect the first amendment freedoms which allow members of the Westboro Baptist Church to rant their angry messages at military funerals or do they side with the grieving family targeted by the group’s hateful protesting? The court will decide if the actions of Westboro protestors are protected by the first amendment.

Unfortunately, the freedom of speech guaranteed in the first amendment – the freedom you and I enjoy while debating politics or criticizing policies - is the same freedom the Westboro Baptist protestors employ. There’s just no accounting for taste with some people.

As a good friend of mine recently reminded me, not too long ago these same first amendment freedoms protected groups who marched in protest of segregation. Some of the most important changes in our country have been forged through the exercise of these freedoms.

However, during a Media Law class in college, I learned that first amendment freedoms aren’t absolute. In order to accommodate public convenience, safety, traffic flow, etc., the Supreme Court has ruled that the government can place certain restrictions on individual expression. An example of this would be time, place and manner rule. TPM restrictions must pass a four-part test in order to be deemed constitutional.

Restrictions must be: content neutral on their face and in application, not constitute a complete ban on a kind of communication, and be narrowly tailored (the government can’t ban more speech than is absolutely necessary to maintain public interest.) Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, the state has to show a substantial reason for placing the restrictions (interests important enough to over-ride free speech consideration).

The famous Skokie vs. National Socialist Party of America Supreme Court case ruling  (1977) allowed members of the socialist party to march through the largely Jewish town of Skokie (of which many residents were Holocaust survivors).

The case proved that even hate speech is still protected under the first amendment.

In their ruling, the supreme court noted, “It is better to allow those who preach racial hatred to expend their venom in rhetoric rather than… to… embark… on the dangerous course of permitting the government to decide what citizens may say and hear.”

Though the rational, thinking part of my brain agrees, my heart aches for the families subject to hateful expressions during such private, grief-filled moments. 

I have to ask myself if it were my family member, would I feel the same way? I honestly can’t say.

To protest is one thing. To protest at a funeral is quite another. To protest at the funeral of a man or woman who gave their life for our country is wrong on so many levels.

I hope I never meet a protestor at a funeral and I hope you never do either. It’s a shame some people exploit the founding freedoms of our great country with such despicable behavior.

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