The American Supreme Court has been criticized by a section of members of society in recent years mainly because of its argued decisions in numerous high-profile cases. The court’s approach in recent years is perceived to be open to discussion if one considers carefully the case of Snyder v. Phelps. The first trial, at District Court, ruled that Phelps was answerable for the pain and distress he inflicted on Snyder.
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The Appeals Court overturned this decision, stating that Phelps and the entire Westboro fraternity had the right to demonstrate. It decided that the lower court had gone astray by instructing the judges to decide a question of law other than fact—exclusively, whether or not the speech under contention was sheltered by the First Amendment.. Again, the ruling was appealed, by way of a writ of certiorari being filed, and the matter found its way to the Supreme Court.
According to Supreme Court of the United States, the issue of Snyder v. Phelps states that, “Westboro kept off the memorial service, Snyder could view anything apart from the tops of the picketers’ symbols, and there was no suggestion that the protests interfered with the funeral service itself. For this reason, Snyder’s side was appropriately reversed. The claims that he was involved in hate speech crime were erroneous.
The pressing legal question in the United States entails two parties, even though the prevailing issue is whether to espouse the U.S. model for handling hate speech or different models being offered globally. One of the parties is Westboro Baptist Church (WBC) and specifically the Pastor Fred Phelps.
The other is Albert Snyder, father of Matthew Snyder, a Marine who died in the Iraq War. Snyder claimed that the protest against the U.S. military for its increasing tolerance of homosexuality caused harm to his family. Phelps, the head of the Westboro Baptist Church, supervised his team to interfere with Matthew Snyder’s funeral service. Snyder’s father was the complainant or petitioner in this case.
Snyder claimed that members of the church, by accusing the military of being immoral, violated his freedoms and rights. Lately, the Texas Supreme Court elucidated that an intentional infliction of emotional distress argument is regarded as a “gap-filler” assertion and cannot be utilized to outwit the limits put on the recuperation of mental suffering reparation under more traditional tort policies. The church had sought a legal notice prior to the event.
The members of Westboro Baptist church have, for decades, protested against the military, the Catholic Church and much of American society for their increasing tolerance of homosexuality and other forms of behavior they consider immoral. This is clearly captured in the following statement:
“The church frequently communicates its views by picketing, often at military funerals. In the more than 20 years that the members of Westboro Baptist have publicized their message, they have picketed nearly 600 funerals”.
The Westboro Baptist Church used strong language that Snyder interpreted as unlawful. The protest took place near the church holding the funeral. The church claimed that it conducted its demonstrations away from the memorial service and on civil land, where it had a right to be.
The protesters wanted to draw attention to what they consider moral decay, specifically those behaviors supported by highly respected institutions, such as the military and the church. In this regard, the complainant was uncomfortable with strong words such as “Thank God for dead soldiers”, “Fags Doom Nations”, or “America is Doomed”.
In the case of Snyder v. Phelps, I will base my argument on previous cases, such as Cohen v. California, Virginia v. Black, Brandenburg v. Ohio, Thomas I. Emerson, Alexander Meiklejohn, and John Stuart Mill’s Harm principle.
First, Meiklejohn noticeably claims that there must be no limits as regards to the free flow of information and thoughts. He believed that giving people the right to speak is essential because it allows ideas to be passed around. Meiklejohn developed the idea of “private and public speech”, which grants absolute protection to public speech.
From this point of view, members of the Westboro Church were exercising their rights to freedom of speech, since they were 1,000 feet away from the funeral and expressing their personal beliefs. Even though the words on the placards harmed Snyder emotionally, the First Amendment should protect the people using it.
As Mill visibly claims in his Harm Principle that only reason for which influence can be lawfully exercised over any member of a cultured society, against his will, is to avoid injury to others. His own benefit, either physical or ethical, is not adequate guarantee. He cannot lawfully be obliged to do or refrain since it will be better for him to do so, as it will make him more contented, since, in the view of others, to do so would be shrewd or even right”.
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Mill argues that that the fullest autonomy as regards to expression is mandatory to compel our points of view to their rational limits, rather than the confines of social discomfiture. Based on this, I support freedom of speech and expression, especially as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) confirms that, “Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression.
According to article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the Church had the right to express its opinion. International law on speech states that each person has a right to express his or her views freely. The state should further protect individuals from injustices emanating from speech freedom.
This right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers”. All people, including members of the Westboro Baptist church, have the right to express their opinions.
Furthermore, everybody has the right to reason as he or she chooses. Westboro members committed no crime by believing that God is killing Americans because of behavior they consider sinful. In fact, signs like “God Hates You” or “Fags Doomed Nation” have no relationship with Snyder’s family because the sign did not name Snyder’s family member or say, “Matthew Snyder, you are going to Hell!” The definition of harm should include “imminent lawless action” or “is likely to incite or produce such action”.
Regarding bodily harm, the picketing did not cause or seek to incite anyone. As the case of Brandenburg v. Ohio, which incorporated Mill’s harm principle into American law, explains as follows:
“The constitutional guarantees of free speech and free press do not permit a State to forbid or proscribe advocacy of the use of force or of law violation except where such advocacy is directed to inciting or producing imminent lawless action and is likely to incite or produce such action”.
Moreover, the question arises whether or not Snyder v. Phelps case is related to harm or offense, in that both postulate a moral or legal ground for enshrining an actor’s behavior. I would argue that we should perceive our society as Mill suggests; the “marketplace of ideas” in which “…belief holds that the truth… arises out of the competition of widely various ideas in free, transparent public discourse…”
Thomas Emerson, as quoted in Freedom of Speech in the United States, also supported this idea, as follows:
“Freedom of expression includes the right to form and hold beliefs on any subject and to communicate those beliefs to others by whatever medium one chooses whether by traditional means, such as speech and the press, or by other means, including music or art”. Emerson draws a distinction between speech that is a form of expression or action. In the case of Snyder v. Phelps, this case could be argued to fall under Emerson’s discussion of defamation and provocation to anger.
This is because the WBC’s words amount to action, which is more than mere expression, on the grounds of the apparent harm and emotional distress they caused Snyder. As the comments were not clearly directed at Snyder, however, they ultimately amounted to a mere expression of opinion in an asymmetrical medium and therefore, Emerson’s Expression-Action Theory still protects them, as follows:
“…freedom of expression includes the right to form and hold beliefs on any subject and to communicate those beliefs on any subject and to communicate those beliefs to others by whatever medium one chooses –whether by traditional means, such as speech and the press…”
In relation to a historical court case, Cohen v. California in 1971 found that wearing a jacket with the words “Fuck the Draft” is not a form of action, but is instead expression and therefore protected. Cohen was accused of going against section 415 of the California punitive rules, which proscribed spitefully and deliberately unsettling the tranquility or silence of any region or personality by unpleasant behavior.
He was therefore jailed for thirty days. Cohen was simply expressing his opinion and was in no way inciting anyone to engage in violence or attack any individual. Connecting the case of Cohen v. California with Emerson’s theory on Expression-Action clearly supports the idea that the words on the placards are a form of expression, are not a form of violence and do not motivate action. Cohen v. California explains this as follows:
“whereas the four-letter speech exhibited by Cohen concerning the draft is not especially employed in a personally aggressive style, in this case it was evidently not aimed at the person of the hearer. No individual in reality or likely to be there could rationally have treated the words on appellant’s jacket as a direct individual affront. Neither was there case of the exercise of the State’s law enforcement power to put off a speaker from deliberately infuriating a certain group to antagonistic response.
There could be as noted above, no evidence that anyone who saw Cohen was actually aggressively stimulated or that the plaintiff anticipated such a consequence”. The similarity between the two cases allows us to apply the reasoning and ruling from Cohen vs. California to Snyder vs. Phelps and helps support the protection of WBC’s speech.
In the Supreme Court case of Virginia v. Black, the court ordered the arrest of defendants and charged them with the intent of intimidating a group of people by burning a cross. The Virginia law clearly stated the following:
“…with the intent of intimidating any person or group… , to burn… a cross on the property of another, a highway or other public place” is illegal and specifies that “[any] such burning… shall be prima facie evidence of an intent to intimidate a person or group”.
Despite the fact that this case is different in context, this case deals with similar repercussions because the people were arrested due to their acting in an intimidating fashion, whereas Phelps v. Snyder deals with intentionally inflicting emotional distress. “Snyder explained the rigorousness of his expressive harm.
He confirmed that he was incapable of detaching the thought of his dead son from his belief of Westboro’s protests and that he frequently becomes weepy, irritated, and physically sick…” as in the Virginia v. Black issue, in which the Supreme Court ultimately decided that cross burning is sheltered except when it creates “true threat” of physical injury. In Virginia v. Black, the Court ruled that Virginia’s law against cross burning is illegal.
However, cross burning carried out with an aim to frighten can be restricted since such expression has an extensive and insidious history as a sign of looming aggression. In Snyder v. Phelps, the picketers may have intended to make Mr. Snyder feel emotionally distressed, but the Supreme Court would still protect the messages on the placards because there were no messages that led to clear threat or physical harm.
Moreover, these people were just expressing their opinions to the public. Furthermore, they were under police control. Contrary to this adoption of the bodily harm principle for regulating speech, most countries have incorporated different theories into their regulation of hate speech. Canada has integrated its national laws to international provisions.
For example, when a Rwandan leader sought refuge in the country, the Canadian authorities applied international law in arresting and prosecuting him. Furthermore, the Canadian Supreme Court defines crimes against humanity according to international jurisprudence. The court distinguishes between incitement and hate speech.
Feinberg suggested that the Canadian Supreme Court embraces global jurisprudence in criminalizing hate speech by using this case law to circumscribe the elements of Canadian domestic crime of incitement to commit genocide, which includes hate speech and crime against humanity.
Expression is an essential part of developing views. It helps individuals explore mentally and achieve self-actualization. In this regard, individuals should have some autonomy since autonomy demonstrates inherent self-respect, morality and self-authentication. Conversely, governments and any other authorities should not prevent citizens from accessing relevant information. Citizens must be allowed to access any form of data.
The onus is on citizens to decide for themselves after analysis. The members of Westboro Baptist church had the right to criticize what they consider moral decay in society. According to them, God was punishing America because it had become immoral. The Westboro congregation holds that soldiers would not be dying if in the military immorality was eliminated. This belief is true to Westboro members.
Hence, they have the right to pass that information to members of the public. Their ideas do not necessarily affect the public in any way. Snyder cannot therefore claim compensation from the Westboro Baptist church, as his son’s funeral took place in the United States where near-absolute freedom of expression trumps prevention of offence as a national value. This is unlike Canada or other international jurisdictions that may have different priorities regarding their values.
When it comes to interpreting Article 19 and other incidents related to hate speech, local history must play a dominant role. In the US, the founders of the constitution ensured that freedom of speech is always guaranteed. The First Amendment explains clearly that no authority, including the congress, shall come up with laws that could interfere with freedom of speech.
In case the state attempts to regulate an individual’s freedom of speech in a public forum, the US Supreme Court evaluates whether the regulation limits the content of the speech or simply regulates time, behavior and location.
In case the Supreme Court regulates content, public interest is always given priority. The Supreme Court scrutinizes laws that restrict content but not time and behavior. Therefore, the Supreme Court should continue interpreting the American law instead of adopting international laws.
Feinberg, Joel. Offense to Others: The Moral Limits of the Criminal Law. Oxford, London: Oxford University Press, 1988. Print.