I know, Christopher Glenn has passed away already, but that doesn’t mean we can’t say, “In the News.” In the news this week has been the Supreme Court decision regarding the Westboro Baptist Church “freedom of speech” controversy.
Mr. Phelps of the Westboro church and his fellow congregation members went to the funeral of a soldier killed in Iraq, and they picketed with signs mainly critical of U.S. government policies, but with the use of “vitriolic rhetoric,” including “Thank God for dead soldiers,” and “You’re going to Hell,” etc. The Supreme Court decided 8-1 that the picketers had a First Amendment right to picket with signs.
However, the real issue here that I hadn’t heard discussed at all on the talk shows, or in the news articles, and that I had to spend too much time reading the actual decision to find out, is whether the picketers were on private or public property. According to the decision,
The church had notified the authorities in advance of its
intent to picket at the time of the funeral, and the picket-
ers complied with police instructions in staging their
demonstration. The picketing took place within a 10- by
25-foot plot of public land adjacent to a public street,
behind a temporary fence. App. to Brief for Appellants
in No. 08–1026 (CA4), pp. 2282–2285 (hereinafter App.).
That plot was approximately 1,000 feet from the church
where the funeral was held. Several buildings separated
the picket site from the church. Id., at 3758. The West-
boro picketers displayed their signs for about 30 minutes
before the funeral began and sang hymns and recited
Bible verses. None of the picketers entered church prop-
erty or went to the cemetery. They did not yell or use
profanity, and there was no violence associated with the
Now, if the picketers were on cemetery grounds and the cemetery were on private property, then no, the picketers do not have a First Amendment right to be on that property to protest or express hatred toward the family of the war’s latest victim. They would have to be considered trespassers. But if the picketers were on public property — which they were — then of course they have a First Amendment right to express themselves.
If property is publicly owned then that means everyone owns the property and has a right of access to it. Public is everyone, and everyone is part of the public. This is one of the many problems and confusions that have been wrought by collectivism, socialism and communism, or any kind of “public ownership” of anything. It is a scheme that just doesn’t work.
There shouldn’t be all these time-wasting arguments going on — Americans need to have a better understanding of the difference between private and public property. Mr. Snyder, the father of the killed soldier, should not have even filed suit in the first place, given that he had only seen the tops of the signs but not read the content at the time, and only became aware of the content later that day while watching the news. In other words, he therefore could not have been the victim of “intentionally provoked distress” (my words) during his son’s funeral, distress supposedly caused by the Westboro people. I can’t see how the funeral itself was made more difficult for him than it was by the Westboro people if he wasn’t aware of their messages. I don’t think the funeral itself could’ve been made a difficult situation later that night.
And I think that Justice Alito’s lone dissenting opinion shows a misunderstanding of the First Amendment. Justice Alito needs to remember the old phrase, “sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.” Now, it is true that words can hurt people emotionally, but the point of having a free society is that physical aggression may not be initiated against anyone else. No one has a right to be free from their emotions being hurt.