Funerals, Freedom, and God Hates Fags

The Westboro Baptist Church picketing at the m...

Fred Phelps, best known for “protesting” at military funerals by alleging that God is killing soldiers because He “hates fags”, is involved in a case that will be heard by the United States supreme court. A few years ago, Albert Snyder sued Phelp’s church for its “protest” at his son’s funeral and won a $5 million settlement. This verdict was recently reversed on the grounds of the First Amendment. While the legal issue will be hashed out by the supreme court, the ethics of the situation are philosophically interesting.

As I have argued in other blogs, it seems reasonable to accept that people have the right to freedom of expression. While I am not a committed utilitarian, I think that Mill makes an excellent case for this freedom in his work on liberty. Allowing free expression certainly does seem to consistently create more good than harm, and this seems to justify accepting it as a general moral guide (with some notable exceptions).

Of course, it also seems reasonable to accept that people have a right to privacy. This includes not just a right to not be infringed upon by the state, but also the right to not be intruded on by other private individuals. As with the right of expression, this right can be argued for on utilitarian grounds. It can also be argued on other grounds, but I will not go into such arguments.

The case involving Phelps is a case in which these two freedoms or rights clash. The general moral problem here involves sorting out which right or freedom trumps the other and the specific problem is whether or not  the right of free expression of the “protesters” outweighs the right to privacy of the people involved with the funerals.

My initial thought, prior to deep reflection, is that the “protesters” do have the right to engage in their activity, provided that they remain on public ground and do not actually interfere with the funeral by disrupting the event itself. However, my initial thought is that they should not be doing such a thing, because it is cruel and insulting. As such, I think people should have a right to say mean and hateful things but that they should not exercise that right.

Upon reflection, I found that I came to the same results.  As part of the process I considered the various grounds on which a person’s freedom of expression can be justly limited. While this is rather oversimplified,  the general principle  is based on the principle of harm: unless the expression can be shown to create a significant and unwarranted harm, then the expression should be allowed. This is what justifies denying people the right to shout “fire” in crowded theaters and the right to engage in slander.

Of course, it could be argued that Phelps and his cohorts are actually causing emotional harm and this justifies silencing them. I can imagine what it would be like trying to bury a son, daughter or parent while hate filled people are screeching such horrible things. I would be outraged at their insensitivity and appalled at the wickedness in their souls. I would be deeply hurt that my loved one was laid to rest to the sounds of foul mouthed vultures cursing and carrying on in their mad rage. I would want them to fall silent and leave, preferably after being tased.

However, considering the matter in the light of calm reason, I must argue that we have no right to silence these “protesters.” The fact their words and actions offend, even deeply and profoundly, is not adequate grounds for silencing them. After all, adopting the principle that people have no right to expression that others find offensive would restrict the freedom of expression in a very harmful way. To use but one example, some people find the idea that women are entitled to equal rights to be deeply offensive to their religious values. However, it would not be right to restrict people from saying such things. Roughly put, we have no right to not be offended.

That said, I still hold that although they have the right to express such ideas, they should not do so. Doing such things at a funeral is disrespectful and insulting to the dead and those who care about them. It is, to say the least, a wicked action. But, it is also one that should be tolerated.

Of course, this does not mean that there should not be restrictions placed on such “protests.” After all, those at the funeral have a right to not have their somber moment sullied by such “protests.” As a practical matter, they should be required to be out of sight and sound of the funeral ceremony. This does not interfere with their right to express their ideas-after all, they do not actually need to disrupt the funeral in order to express their views. After all, we have no right to needlessly annoy people.

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13 Comments.

  1. I’ve been aware of Phelps and his congregation for quite some time, and I’ve reached the same conclusion, but the whole thing does make my stomach hurt.

    If anyone is interested, a British pop-documentarian by the name of Louis Theroux spent 2 weeks with this family/congregation and got to tape and broadcast most of it. It’s very interesting and insightful. I highly recommend finding it.

  2. Only someone who regards speech as irrelevant and unimportant would extent the right to insult and provocation to those who have nothing to communicate but virulent hate. The burial of your dead in peace is a sacred event that ought to be protected by the community. It marks the liberal unwillingness to demarcate between free speech that is a noble value and hate speech that subverts.

  3. In this connection; what exactly are Fags? Additionally what is the relationship between dead soldiers and Fags?

  4. How did the Phelps family find out the location of the funeral? Shouldn’t this sort of information be kept private? I understand that in the military certain parties must know about the event, to include, but not limited to, the honor guard, the chain of command, and the chaplain office. Did somebody leak the where/when of this military funeral, or is it deemed public information? It would seem to be easy enough to prevent protesters from being present by keeping the information privy, wouldn’t it?

  5. This is a matter I’ve followed with some interest. The church that Phelps founded is an obvious cult centered around the lunatic ravings of this one hate-filled individual. The members of the church are nearly all members of Phelps’s family. Phelps and many of the family are lawyers. (Phelps himself has been disbarred.) They know how to take their ‘protests’ to the very limits of the law and still stay safely within the letter of the law.
    At the risk of being labeled as one of those liberals who can’t tell the nobler aspects of free speech from wanton vitriol, I feel that the constitutional right to free speech is something that can only be chipped away at with at most the point of a very sharp knife. Please, let’s not take anything approaching a sledgehammer anywhere close to this freedom. Under any form of government, freedoms are so much easier to give up than they are to acquire.
    Yes, I condemn these hateful lunatics. I condemn their so-called protests. I see their antics for what they are: the self-indulgent, self-important rantings of a sad, sick collection of misfit necrophiles. Unfortunately, being forced to put up with this sort of thing is part of the price of free speech.
    If the lawyers can draw a finer line between free speech and harassment and draw it in such a manner that these vermin can be silenced, I certainly won’t mind as long as legitimate speech is not infringed along the way. But, who decides what speech has noble value and what crosses over into hate speech? Since the liberals apparently can’t decide, I suppose we need to appoint only conservatives to decide these questions. Would that result in greater freedom or less freedom do you suppose?
    One last note: I watched that pop-documentary, and unfortunately it was a bit more pop and a little less documentary. The narrator actually succeeded in doing the impossible. He made these crazies look reasonable – well, at least more reasonable than he looked. It seems that if you go up against a bunch of lawyers and your chief rhetorical weapons are childish taunts, insults, an unassailable self-righteousness, and an adolescent desire to shock, even the nastiest, most bigoted, most hateful cultists can end up looking like the adults in the room.

  6. Mr. Bird asked what the connection between dead soldiers and ‘fags’ is. It’s a tenuous connection. The Phelps family believes that America is a nation of ‘fag enablers’, and those who fight for America are presumably just that much more guilty of enabling the fags. To use the proper term, they’re nuts.
    It’s a mystery to me just exactly how homosexuality became THE Big, Bad, Ugly for so many zealots on the far right. The Nazis had the Jews. All those who promote one or another form of some fascist vision of a Master Race or a Chosen People seem to need to point to some group who are their opposite and their enemy; the supposed example of everything they themselves are not. It’s always funny when so many of the far right homophobes end up getting caught entangled with male prostitutes or entangled in some similar compromising position.
    Phelps and his followers ascribe to a version of Calvinism in which they see themselves as comprising part of an extremely limited number of mortals predestined from before birth for salvation. The vast majority of humanity is predestined to burn in Hell and nothing they do during their lives can ever save them. Basically, the rest of humanity is irredeemably damned and ascribed an entirely separate and much lower status than the chosen ones, and this division comes from God Almighty. I suppose making a big stink about who sleeps with who among the damned might be seen as splitting hairs when viewed in this light, but Phelps tends to make a big deal over the whole issue. I guess the family must think that the whole God Hates Fags bit makes for more memorable protest signs than Sinners Burn in Hell or some such. Nuts.

  7. Randy Waldron writes:

    If the lawyers can draw a finer line between free speech and harassment and draw it in such a manner that these vermin can be silenced, I certainly won’t mind as long as legitimate speech is not infringed along the way.

    Bring on the lawyers. Americans are said and led by them. In a difficult situation find out what the law is and discover whether it reaches back to the sacred principles of those ‘rishis’ the Founders. Consider instead the asymmetrical aspect of granting the untrammelled right to free hate speech to the Phelp Family. The nice polite people like yourself and Mike Lab will never exercise that right, you are saving it for the walpurgisnacht wedding night of open warfare. You deplore them as you should but don’t rest on your laurels do something about it. Write to your lawyer senator.

    Meanwhile back in the old country Wilders is in the dock for hate speech. Even in that very open society limits are recognised. Lawyers in America got round obvious torture with legalese, get them on this case if you are unable to decide on your own.

  8. It’s my belief that the freedom of speech always trumps that of personal pain. As you’ve indicated, preventing anyone from speaking their mind in such a manner will eventually lead to the elimination of the First Amendment. Perhaps the best way to deal with impolite morons who want to protest at funerals is to have the press feature the personal lives of those who are protesting. Perhaps that won’t work, but freedom is freedom and our basic rights as provided under the Constitution and the Bill of Rights must be preserved at all cost.

  9. Thanks to Randy Waldren for explaining this matter. I had previously not heard of the Phelps phenomenon. I am not sufficiently familiar with the Law in USA. Accordingly I am wondering what the case would be if for dead soldiers we substitute, dead Jewish people, or dead Black People, assuming of course that the Phelps entourage would still rage insanely at these funerals of these people. Are there any religious or racial provisions in the law against which they would be offending?

    Mike La Bossiere States “As a practical matter, they should be required to be out of sight and sound of the funeral ceremony. This does not interfere with their right to express their ideas-after all, they do not actually need to disrupt the funeral in order to express their views. After all, we have no right to needlessly annoy people.”
    This would interfere greatly with their ability to get their views across. The reason being that the more outrageous and unacceptable a viewpoint is, the louder and more outrageous needs to be the protest i.e they DO need to disrupt a funeral to be taken notice of; for one thing it is news, and will be published. Take that away from them and they will probably transfer their attentions to Baptisms and Marriages. How such people can be controlled and still allow them free speech I do not know. Possibly legislation against disrupting any kind of duly authorised ceremonial proceedings.

  10. This would interfere greatly with their ability to get their views across. The reason being that the more outrageous and unacceptable a viewpoint is, the louder and more outrageous needs to be the protest i.e they DO need to disrupt a funeral to be taken notice of; for one thing it is news, and will be published.

    I’ll break out my hair splitter at this point and say that there is a distinction between their right to express their views and their ability to get attention. True, being kept away from funerals would probably diminish their coverage in the news. However, the right to expression does not seem to include a right to attention. I would, for example, get more attention if I could write my blog posts on Lady Gaga’s chest. However, this hardly entails that being denied this opportunity infringes on my right of expression.

    Take that away from them and they will probably transfer their attentions to Baptisms and Marriages. How such people can be controlled and still allow them free speech I do not know. Possibly legislation against disrupting any kind of duly authorised ceremonial proceedings.

    I’m not a lawyer, but most places have nuisance laws intended to keep people from being, well, nuisances. Also, private property laws can be invoked in some cases.

  11. I agree that there is a distinction between “must” and “ought”. The law can’t get into every aspect of social decency, because of all the individual liberties involved.

    Of course, the right to protest ought – and must – be inclusive. I’m not at all sure that it is. I don’t think it’s given equally to every interest group. Depends on what powerful friends and enemies a group has in a particular community. It varies,too, with political fashion. It’s okay to be mean to Muslims this year, as long as you respect African Americans; you can call secularists immoral, but not breathe a word against Israel; soldiers are sacred, but welfare mothers are fair game. Public sentiment changes and law-enforcement reflects current mood, even if the letter of the law doesn’t.

    Suppose a bunch of soldiers – off duty, unofficial, unarmed volunteers – were to hold their own, equally legal, vigil between the protesters and the funeral party?

  12. Define the boundaries of “privacy” (in legal terms) and do not allow “freedom of expression” to cross the line.

    Infuriating to see people get up on a soap box and start attacking other domains with outlandish assertions.

  13. This man’s argument seems fairly easy to undermine: If God hates the “fags”, and that’s WHY they’re killed, why are the rest of the [straight/hetero] soldiers dying?!? What is he trying to say? ‘They didn’t tell’, or what? They died for legitimate reasons, but those homosexual miscreants got what they deserved? Or, perhaps they committed some other sin that deems them unworthy – e.g. being a drug user, listening to rap or ‘devil rock’, supporting abortion, or, worst of all, being a LIBERAL (instant damnation, I’m sure). It didn’t convince with Pat Robertson, and the premises are even more tenuous on this one.

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