C.J. Marshall: Significa: Freedom of speech is a double-edged sword.
Freedom of speech is a double-edged sword.
Case in point, the Westboro Baptist Church is in the news again. According to an article published by the New York Daily News, the WBC announced that it intended to picket the funeral of actor Paul Walker, who was recently killed in a car crash.
Such actions are not new to the Westboro Baptist Church, which has gained tremendous notoriety through the years by picketing the funerals of celebrities, as well as military personnel who were killed in service to their country. Vehemently anti-homosexual to the point of fanaticism, the church's website sports the slogan "God hates fags," and church members regularly hold protests at funerals to bring attention to the WBC's "message."
Located in Topeka, Kansas, the Westboro Baptist Church was founded in 1955 by Fred Phelps, and in 2011 claimed to have about 40 members - made up mostly of Phelps' family members. Despite its title, the Westboro Baptist Church is listed as "unaffiliated," and both the Baptist World Alliance and the Southern Baptist Convention - the two largest Baptist denominations in the world - have each denounced the WBC several times for its activities.
As I pointed out earlier, part of the Westboro Baptist Church attempts to bring its message across include members picketing funerals. For slain military personnel, according to the church's website, said person's death is an act of God as punishment for the U.S. not condemning homosexuality. For celebrities, the WBC contends that their God killed them because of their decadent lifestyles.
As reported in the New York Daily News article, the Westboro Baptist Church was quoted as stating: "Paul (Walker) served himself and the gods of his world (money, fame, excess of riot, etc.) while refusing to serve His Creator and use his platform to encourage his neighbors to do the same. He's in Hell and Westboro will picket funeral."
The Daily News article also pointed out that Walker had often used his celebrity status to perform charity work. One of his acts was to establish Reach Out Worldwide, an organization that provides relief to areas struck by natural disasters around the world. Hardly the hedonistic extremes the WBC claims caused Walker's downfall.
I checked the church's website, particularly its picket schedule. One thing which caught my eye is the group intends to stage a protest at a presentation given by Bill Cosby on Feb. 1 in Kansas City, Mo. The church is contending that Cosby's son Ennis -- who was killed in a robbery attempt 16 years ago -- died as God's punishment to the entertainer, and the reason for the protest is because Cosby still has not accepted God's word.
As I stated at the beginning, freedom of speech is a two-edge sword. You have to support it, otherwise it becomes meaningless, no matter how ridiculous, asinine, or just downright stupid a person's or organization's contentions. From what I've read about the Westboro Baptist Church - both from its website as well as other sources - I've come to the conclusion that the organization is nothing by a hate group, determined to spew its poisonous messages in the name of God.
If church members were content to state their beliefs via traditional methods, then that wouldn't be so bad. But that's not enough - in order to get the message out, members constantly see to gain notoriety to draw attention to themselves. And sadly, the church has found one of the most effective methods of gaining notoriety is disrupting a funeral.
Let's face it, if church members carried their signs and handed out pamphlets in front of the White House and the Capitol Building, nobody would notice - because so many other groups do that as well. But hold a protest at a funeral - normally a time of grieving and closure - and it draws attention like a magnet. One of the most notorious recent examples occurred when the church announced it intended to stage a protest at a vigil for the victims of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting. In response, many states and the federal government have passed laws in an attempt to limit protests from being held too close to funerals on the grounds that mourners are entitled to be shielded from such actions during their time of grief.
So far, these laws have had decidedly mixed results, due in a large part First Amendment's guarantee of freedom of speech. The court's have often ruled in the church's favor, saying members are within their Constitutional rights to stage such protests. However, sometimes a victory is won on the other side, with judges pointing out that even freedom of speech is subject to certain restrictions and restraints.
As a journalist I pride myself in being a most firm supporter of that right of freedom of speech - and by extension - expression. But also, as journalist, I see the need where certain guidelines have to be set down and observed, otherwise the whole process of freedom of expression descends into chaos and ultimately becomes meaningless. Although I vehemently disagree with the philosophies expressed by the church, I have no choice but to support their right to have their say. But that doesn't stop me from urging the states and the federal government to continue to hopefully find a way - within Constitutional guidelines - to protect relatives and friends attending a loved ones funeral from the shenanigans of the Westboro Baptist Church in its vainglorious attempts to spew out its decidedly un-Christian messages of hate and malice.