Is there a time when freedom of speech isn’t exactly free? That question is being posed right now to the Supreme Court with Snyder vs. Westboro Baptist Church.
Albert Snyder sued the small church and the Phelps family for emotional distress he claims they caused him while protesting near his son’s funeral. The Westboro Baptist Church makes regular appearances at funerals of fallen soldiers to protest with signs like “Thank God for Dead Soldiers.” As reported by the L.A. Times, a Baltimore jury awarded Mr. Snyder $5 million, but the verdict was later thrown out by an appeals court last year.
The case of Snyder vs. Westboro Baptist Church goes far beyond the parties involved in the case, and could set a new legal precedent if the court rules in favor of Albert Snyder. Whether the Westboro Baptist Church teetered into a morally gray area is up for debate. The question is: Are they protected by the First Amendment? Freedom of speech is something we treasure about our country, and believe to be part of the foundation of the United States of America. If it is determined that the Westboro Baptist Church isn’t protected in this case by freedom of speech, then where does the line with protection of rights lie? Is that a decision that anybody wants to make, and is there any way to avoid contradicting verdicts in such a case?
We live in a sue-happy country to begin with, where somebody can sue a fast food company because they are overweight while they consumed the chain’s food all the time. What happens when we tell people that they can sue somebody for holding up a sign, or saying something that causes another person stress? I would love to say that we live in a world where it is a rare occurrence for people to get stressed out over what another person says, but that isn’t the world we live in.
We live in a country in which people can say whatever is on their mind and not pay the consequences in a court. As with any right, we tend to abuse freedom of speech. We often say things that may hurt others and were better left unsaid. Sometimes we intentionally want to hurt others with our words, but often we just want our voices heard.
If the Supreme Court rules against the Westboro Baptist Church, you must ask yourself how will this affect the future of our country. Is it possible that the courts will eventually be flooded with freedom of speech cases? Will there ever be such a thing as a protest in the future? Protests usually involve very sensitive issues, and it is pretty easy to see there being quite a few cases that would follow this one. Is it far-fetched to see hundreds of cases where anti-gay, anti-abortion and racist groups are sued for emotional distress? What if it goes further, where someone writes on a personal website and a reader finds the material distressing?
The Supreme Court justices have to make a decision that may change the way we live in the United States. They are in a no-win situation. If they rule in favor of Westboro Baptist Church, it looks as though they are giving permission to groups to harass people. If they rule against the Church, they now have to deal with the slippery slope of deciding where to draw the line in the sand when it comes to freedom of speech. No matter what, this case could end up setting a historical legal precedent.