Why Fred Phelps’s Free Speech Rights Should Matter to Us All

By Chris Hampton, Youth and Program Strategist, ACLU LGBT Project

The first time I saw those signs, with their vivid neon colors and crude images of stick figures, was 16 years ago. "Fags Die, God Laughs." "No Tears for Queers." "God Hates Fags." Like most people seeing a Westboro Baptist Church picket for the first time, I was shocked, then outraged. It happened at the funeral of a friend who had died of AIDS. Seeing those signs left me in tears.

I came out in the early 90’s in Lawrence, Kansas, just 25 miles from the home of Fred Phelps and his followers. As I became increasingly involved in local lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender activism, I started seeing the Westboro picketers on a regular basis. They showed up anytime we put on an event and sometimes at completely incongruous ones — the annual production of The Nutcracker in Topeka, for example. In 1994 they traveled to my Arkansas hometown to protest at the funeral of President Clinton’s mother. My mom called me, asking, "Who on earth are these crazy people from Topeka?"

Phelps was mainly known locally in those days but his views eventually started getting more national attention. He grabbed broader notice in 1998 after Matthew Shepard was brutally killed in an anti-gay hate crime in Wyoming. Shepard’s murder garnered national attention and Westboro’s picketers showed up at the funeral, shocking and upsetting thousands of mourners. So I wasn’t at all surprised a few years ago when Phelps and his followers began picketing at the funerals of American soldiers killed in Iraq, nor was I surprised at the hurt and fury his presence at these heartbreaking moments caused to those who had just lost loved ones. I understood firsthand how they felt.

Many years after first seeing those signs, I started working at the American Civil Liberties Union. One of the things that becomes clear as you look at the ACLU’s work over the years is that government censorship has long been used to silence unpopular minorities, including LGBT people. The ACLU’s first gay rights case was in 1936, when we defended the play The Children’s Hour after it was banned in Boston because of its "lesbian content." From our defense of a San Francisco publisher and bookstore owner who was charged with printing and selling indecent books for releasing Alan Ginsberg’s Howl, to our case just last year standing up for the right of students at a public high school in Florida to wear rainbow t-shirts or the one this year defending Constance McMillen’s right to take her girlfriend to her senior prom, we have successfully fought back when government has sought to silence LGBT people. We would have never been able to make the tremendous progress we have made in the struggle for LGBT equality without being able to talk openly about what it means to be who we are. Who can doubt that had it been up the government in the 1950’s — or to many state governments today — we wouldn’t be able to come out at all.

It’s because you simply can’t blindly trust the government with the power to censor that the First Amendment grants all Americans, regardless of their views, the right to express themselves. The ACLU has defended the free speech rights of many types of groups, from the International Society for Krishna Consciousness to the KKK. We don’t do that because we agree with either. We do it because we believe in the principle, and because we realize that once you chip away at one person’s rights, everyone else’s are at risk. It’s because of this that the ACLU submitted a friend-of-the-court brief in a case heard by the U.S. Supreme Court yesterday about an appeal being brought by Westboro Baptist Church. The appeal comes after a federal jury awarded .9 million (which the judge later reduced to million) to a father of Matthew Snyder, a Marine whose funeral was picketed by Westboro Baptist Church. In the brief, we pointed out that the First Amendment’s protection of freedom of speech guarantees that no one can be found liable for merely expressing an opinion about a matter of public concern, regardless of how hurtful those opinions might be.

I can imagine the pain and the anger that Matthew Snyder’s family felt upon seeing those signs. Those feelings are real and valid, and I feel nothing but sympathy for that family’s suffering. But free speech doesn’t belong only to those we agree with, and the First Amendment doesn’t only protect speech that is tasteful and inoffensive. In fact, it is in the hard cases that our commitment to the First Amendment is most tested and most important. As one federal judge has put it, tolerating hateful speech is "the best protection we have against any Nazi-type regime in this country."

In this case, we believe that the jury verdict violated First Amendment principles that protect the free speech rights of everyone. We want to protect those principles, which have always been essential to the advancement of civil rights, including the civil rights of LGBT people. Allowing Fred Phelps to speak his mind may be difficult, but chipping away at one of the fundamental principles on which our country was founded is far, far worse for all of us in the long run.

Pam’s House Blend – Front Page

—  John Wright

TODAY: Supreme Court Hears Westboro Baptist Church Free Speech Case

The Westboro Baptist Church picketed the White House yesterday in advance of their appearance before the Supreme Court today where the father of a slain U.S. Marine is asking that his M judgment against the Phelps family be reinstated.

Albert Snyder, of York, Pa., took legal action after church members picketed the funeral of his son. “My son and the hundreds of thousands of other men and women who have died for this country worked too hard to preserve our freedom of speech than to have it mocked and cowardly stood behind like this church does,” Snyder said. The church members claim America’s acceptance of homosexuality and abortion are some of the reasons for all of its problems. In 2006, church members demonstrated at Matthew Snyder’s funeral. His father sued and in 2007, a jury ordered the church to pay million US. That penalty was later reduced to million. The verdict and penalty were later overturned on appeal.

Westboro is being represented by the ACLU. If you can bear it, Megan Phelps is live-tweeting the proceedings.

Joe. My. God.

—  John Wright

THE SUPREMES: Kagan & Co. Just 3 Days Away From Hearing Westboro’s Free Funeral Speech Claim

With three women on the bench for the first time, the Supreme Court's 2010-11 term will tackle a slew of cases predicated one on of our favorite issues 'round these parts: the First Amendment. Put a condom on in case you blow your wad, because there's also some gays mixed in!


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—  John Wright

Court: Professor Calling You A ‘Fascist Bastard’ For a Pro-Prop 8 Speech Is Not a Legal Matter


Jonathan Lopez is the Los Angeles City College student whose professor John Matteson cut short, in the days after 2008's Prop 8 decision, Lopez's classroom speech on the definition of marriage and what the Bible thinks of homogays. Lopez sued for financial damages, claiming his First Amendment rights were violated after Mattseon berated him and called him (and anyone who voted for Prop 8) a "fascist bastard." And while a lower court approved Lopez's suit, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals just told him to get the F out of their stack of paperwork in a unanimous decision to dismiss the case, saying Lopez, represented by the gasbags at the Alliance Defense Fund, failed to show he was harmed by Mattseon, uh, speaking the truth.


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—  John Wright

Antigay Speech Lawsuit Dismissed

LA CITY COLLEGE X390A lawsuit filed by a L.A. City College student who claimed his professor
violated his free speech rights by interrupting his speech against gay
marriage was dismissed Friday.
Advocate.com: Daily News

—  John Wright

#VVS2010: Inhofe’s very boring #DADT speech

Sen Inhofe (R-OK with Not-OK LGBT views) got some very muted applause for his DADT stuff. Not a great sign for a conservative in a crowd where most every other piece of clap-bait will Palin comparison pale in comparison to a marriage ban mention:

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Good As You

—  John Wright

Activist Video: Activist Iowa judge actively giving activist speech on active activist video!

You’ve heard us talk about the inappropriateness of social conservatives’ current campaign to remove the three Iowa justices who are on the ballot in this year’s retention vote (David Baker, Michael Streit and Chief Justice Marsha Ternus) simply because they, the self-appointed moral monopolists, don’t like the way the UNANIMOUS marriage equality decision went down. But now hear from the man who actually wrote the Varnum opinion (by luck of the draw), Republican appointee Mark Cady, as he shares his views on the independent judiciary’s pivotal role and the need to do what’s right even in the face of rage and/or complacency:

‘Independence’ cited by justice in same-sex case [Des Moines Register]

**SEE ALSO: What Terry Brandstad, former state governor (’83-’99) and current GOP candidate to return to the governor’s office, had to say about Cady back when he appointed him:

The Cedar Rapids Gazette, 9/20/98

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Good As You

—  John Wright