Hateful Speech 7

Jim West has a couple of posts today regarding free speech. The first was his post regarding the Supreme Courts ruling regarding the Westboro church.

Appalling: The Supreme Court Sides with Westboro Baptist…

Disgusting.  Freedom of speech should never trump what’s morally right.  Never.  The Court blew it yet again.

(Christian Salafia agrees with him as well.) I replied via twitter pointing out that such was the price of free speech. Jim respectfully disagreed saying, “hate speech isn’t covered by the first amendment.” And then posted later today,

Many American Christians utter the phrase ‘freedom of speech’ with more love and adoration than they have ever cited Scripture.  ’Freedom of speech’ as a dictum is the new American Idol.  And it is idolatrous precisely because too often it trumps Scripture and silences its voice (in a most peculiar and ironic twisting).

Those who know me certainly know that I am not one of those whom Jim is describing (and to be clear, I am not suggesting that I am in his mind as he wrote this). My view of Scripture is very high indeed and freedom of speech is not an idol for me. But Jim has some facts wrong and all of it is ironic given recent comments regarding the tenor and tone of Jim’s own blog.

Freedom of speech has routinely defended religious expression rather than silencing its voice. That is not to say that the position has not been challenged, but individual rights to preach, proclaim, and post Scripture has regularly been upheld by the Supreme Court through the invocation of the First Amendment.

Second, as I said on twitter responding to Jim, Westboro’s speech is hateful but it is not hate speech. Partly this is a tautology, because the Supreme Court ruled that what they have done is acceptable behavior/speech, it is by definition protected speech. (“Hate speech” and whether it is not also protected speech is still much debated, so to say that it is not protected under the First Amendment is not yet proved.)

It is almost a maxim now but the speech that most offends us and that we most dislike is that which most needs protection. Consider Jim’s own blog. As observed in recent debate, there are many who consider his posts hateful, ugly, and offensive and would just as soon see him close shop again. Of course Jim rightly responds, “don’t read it.” The irony of this is clear for all to see, I will comment no more on that.

Finally, I feel I must make this absolutely clear: I abhor what Westboro does and I find no justification for it. My deepest sympathies go out to the families of the fallen soldiers. The death of any loved one is tragic and wrenching no matter when and under what circumstances occurs.


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7 thoughts on “Hateful Speech

  • Delirious

    I agree with what you have posted here.
    As appalling as Westboro’s speech may be, someone else might find Jim’s speech just as appalling. Just because it goes against our moral sensitivities does not mean they shouldn’t have the right to believe what they want to believe and say what they want to say. If they cross the legal line, then take action. There are other groups in the U.S. whose ideals differ vastly from mine, and I find their causes to be morally bankrupt. But I support their right to speak up about their beliefs. Please, let’s don’t lose the freedoms for which our forefathers so strongly fought!

  • Matthew Scott

    I think context matters. I support their right to speak, as I support the right to keep and bear arms. I also support restrictions on both rights for the greater good of society. Do the families of these servicemen have the right to a quiet funeral? Is that not also speech? Should neo-nazis be allowed to demonstrate outside synagogues, shouting offensive slogans and disrupting services? I oppose abortion, but was appalled by the tactics of Operation Rescue for very similar reasons. I support Westboro’s right to speak, but targeting dead and wounded soldiers with vitriolic and hateful words is, in my opinion, indefensible. I don’t believe that this is what the founders of our nation fought for, but if it is, then they were wrong.

    • Chris Brady Post author

      Matthew – As I said, I don’t like what they say or do and I am completely sympathetic to the families. It is my understanding that there are restrictions (that Westboro abides by) such as being over 300 feet away, etc. In this case perhaps the families of the servicemen are seeking the wrong remedy. Rather than end Westboro’s speech they should have argued for further protections for themselves?

      • Matthew Scott

        Agreed. Words and ideas are weapons, and in civil society there must be conditions on their use, which often begin with protection and delineation. There are interesting parallels with the Skokie Neo-Nazi case in the 1970’s.
        Rather than end the speech, delineate it’s context.

  • John Hobbins


    Thanks for picking up on this.

    The last time I saw Fred Phelps and company was outside of Trinity UCC in Chicago. I was hugely impressed by the response of the men of Trinity to the picketers:

    “Their response to the demonstration had been to ring the church and warmly greet everyone in the name of Christ, demonstrators included, with strong handshakes and the calm composure I have come to expect from the men of Trinity.”

    For a fuller account, go here:


    A good defense against crude and hateful speech is to call it what it is.

    A better defense is to return good for evil.

    A weak defense is the use of the coercive power of the state or of another institution to shut perpetrators of hate speech up. To the extent that this strategy has been applied by academic institutions, I wonder if it has backfired.

    • Chris Brady Post author

      I remember your post and I agree completely. That should indeed be the response.

      You ask, “A weak defense is the use of the coercive power of the state or of another institution to shut perpetrators of hate speech up. To the extent that this strategy has been applied by academic institutions, I wonder if it has backfired.”

      The answer is that such efforts (such as at UPenn) it has universally failed. When the universities try and limit speech they have almost always lost, politically if not in the courts.

  • Christian


    While I agree that hateful, ugly, and distasteful speech is protected, and should be protected, it’s my opinion that in this case WBC crossed the line.

    I don’t typically agree with Justice Alito, but as he showed, the missives from WBC regarding Snyder prove that this protest was not completely about public issues, but was motivated by private ones.

    By demeaning Snyder’s memory and his family, then showing up to the funeral, Phelps and company were looking to intentionally inflict emotional distress upon the grieving.

    Had they not published the missives that attacked Snyder and his family personally, I’d be in 100% agreement with you. I wouldn’t have liked the decision, but I would understand where it came from and the legal precedence behind it.

    I simply believe the USSC got this one wrong.