Painful fight over First Amendment

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By Tressa Eckermann, Senior Staff Writer

Last week, the Supreme Court made a ruling that has the entire nation discussing the meaning of the First Amendment.

The decision involved the Westboro Baptist Church, an independent church from Topeka, Kan. Members are known for their extreme stance against homosexuality and for picketing funerals of service members, people who have passed away from AIDS and gay victims of murder. They’re considered a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center and are closely monitored by the Anti-Defamation League.

In 2006, the church picketed the funeral of Marine Lance Cpl. Matthew A. Snyder. That June, the Snyder family sued for defamation, invasion of privacy and intentional infliction of emotional distress. The case went to the Supreme Court and on March 2, the court ruled 8-1 in favor of the church.

“What Westboro said, in the whole context of how and where it chose to say it, is entitled to ‘special protection’ under the First Amendment and that protection cannot be overcome by a jury finding that the picketing was outrageous,” Chief Justice John Roberts said in the opinion that was handed down.  

Any reasonable person can agree these people are disgusting. I don’t even think breath should be wasted on them, and find it laughable that they can call themselves anything resembling human beings. What they do is deplorable.

However, the decision made by the Supreme Court was right, as painful as it is to admit. As a journalist, I believe the First Amendment is the only thing that holds us together and protects us. It’s our guiding light. We can’t limit someone’s right to express him or herself even if the way they do so is horrifying and disturbing.

If we begin limiting one group, when does it end? What will come next?

Some people may be afraid to support the court’s decision because that could be seen as supporting the church. However, that’s not the case. It’s important to understand that the First Amendment is our most important amendment, and though these people are horrendous excuses for human beings, what they say is protected free speech. We need to take their ‘message’ out of the debate and simply look at what their rights are, difficult as that may be. 

The silver lining in this entire debacle is that President Bush signed into law the Respect for America’s Fallen Heroes Act, prohibiting protests within 300 feet of the entrance of any cemetery under control of the National Cemetery Association, extending from 60 minutes before to 60 minutes after a funeral.  Many states have also enacted their own similar laws – in Indiana, protesters are not allowed to come within 500 feet of a funeral.

This isn’t an easy topic to discuss.  It’s heated and painful but important. Supporting another person’s First Amendment right to free speech isn’t the same as supporting what they’re saying. Our words are the only thing that we truly own. We can’t take that away from someone, no matter how disgusting those words are.

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