Rights When It’s Wrong

Rights When It's Wrong

Jaime Coyne

The Supreme Court has ruled that the Westboro Baptist Church has a right to picket their hateful, anti-gay message under the First Amendment – even at funerals. While this news does not exactly make me happy, I think it was the right decision; it holds true to free speech. At the same time, maybe we need to redefine what funerals are. While they are technically public, they’re also one of the most private events imaginable. First Amendment aside, no one should have to deal with intolerant picketing during the funeral of a loved one.

This isn’t the first that I’ve heard of Westboro Baptist Church (if you would like to hear their side of the argument, you can visit their lovely website www.godhatesfags.com – once they get it up and running again after a recent hacking).

After I’d gone off to college, the group (they are not actually a church; they have no affiliation Baptists) came to my high school to protest a drama club production based on the true story of a gay young man who had been murdered because of his sexual orientation. I had been in the drama club for all four years of high school. I happened to be home on break during the protest, and I took part in the counter-protest.

Westboro Baptist Church’s homophobic picketing was actually a great thing for my town. We came together against them. Much of the high school student body came to the protest, and I saw many other graduates, as well as teachers and parents.

It was the most accepting that I have seen my town, which is generally pretty silent on the topic in my experience, be toward homosexuality. So, thank you, Westboro Baptist Church. Your message of hatred brought us together more than any club’s or administration’s message of acceptance could have. I’m too cynical to believe that the effects were long term. But it was still something. I concede to your First Amendment right.

Westboro Baptist Church also picketed the funeral of a high school classmate’s brother. The classmate is a girl I’ve known since elementary school, and had classes with often. I saw her break down into tears in school about her brother’s death. I felt the emotion in the speech she and her younger brother gave when they handed out a scholarship in his name at our award ceremony se­nior year. And nothing can make me think that it is right, morally, for Westboro Baptist Church to have brought further pain to his funeral. I would never, for instance, protest the way a member of the Westboro Baptist Church lived his life at his funeral, even though I find his ideology as repugnant as he finds homosexuality.

But it is right, under the First Amendment. And in many ways I am glad to see that the Su­preme Court held firm on that. Free speech is vitally important. I indulge in that right as a writer. But I never would have classified funerals as ‘public’ before reading about this decision. Maybe what needs to be considered here isn’t the right to free speech, but the right to privacy.