I remember my first experience with freedom of speech when I was in college. It seemed like everyday someone was standing on the campus' main plaza arguing to the passing crowd why the President was ruining our country, why the University was spending all our money, or why the end of the world was near.
I distinctly remember one man who held up an extremely offensive anti-Semitic, anti-Catholic and anti-Muslim sign. This crossed the line. I just could not understand why the University would allow him to come onto campus. It wasn't until law school that I figured out the answer...
The founding fathers viewed freedom of speech as one of the most important qualities for our young, undeveloped nation. They understood that without the select group of men and woman that chose to voice their opinion against the tyranny of the British Rule in the 1700's, this country would have never existed. The 1st Amendment has sown itself into the fabric of our nation's legal foundation. But how far does this right extend?
The 1st Amendment of the Constitution reads, "Congress shall make no law...abridging the freedom of speech..." The goal of the First Amendment is to preserve the "marketplace of ideas" - a collection of goals and ideas that will continue to move our country forward. Allowing the government to limit speech steers the nation dangerously close to total government control.
Eventually, however, the Court realized that all speech cannot go unregulated. Some speech is too dangerous or harmful to give complete protection. The Supreme Court created the "hierarchy of speech" in response. The hierarchy of speech places a value on each unique type of speech. Political and religious speech, for example, are of high value to society and are offered more protections. On the other hand, obscene speech has little value to society, thus few protections are given. Commercial speech (advertising) is somewhere in the middle.
How much protection do we give to "high value" speech? What about when the speech preaches hatred and anti-Americanism? This past March, the Supreme Court was faced with the case of Snyder v. Phelps, a case where the father of a Marine killed in combat sought to prevent the followers of the Westboro Baptist Church from protesting at his son's funeral with signs that read "Pray for More Dead Soldiers", "Your Sons are in Hell" and "Thank God for IEDs." The church believes that the death of Americans is God's punishment for the nation's acceptance of homosexuality. The Court was forced to choose between protecting religious high-value speech and protecting the privacy of military funerals.
The Supreme Court Justices made clear that they found the language of the church disturbing, hateful and troubling but still protected by the 1st Amendment of the Constitution. Hate-speech, as painful and harmful as it can be, is still protected in our Constitutional rights. Political and religious speech is still at the top of the hierarchy of valuable speech, and any attempt to chill the speech opens the door for a slippery slope of total government control over our free speech rights.
As long as the signs and protests of the Westboro Baptist Church are not endangering the public by promoting violence or riots, their speech is also protected according to the Supreme Court. The same goes for the KKK, flag burners and the guy I mentioned above holding the the anti-Semitic, anti-Catholic and anti-Muslim sign on my college campus.
Perhaps the most ironic thing about the Westboro Baptist Church's anti-American signs is that only in America would they have the Constitutional protections to freely express their religious views without government intervention.