Students, faculty react to Fred Phelps decision

Luke Pryor Collegio Reporter

The Supreme Court ruled 8-1 in favor of the Westboro Baptist Church, a religious group infamous for displaying its anti-gay religious views and for protesting at funerals,  which affirmed that the church’s activities are protected by the First Amendment, Wednesday, March 2.

The decision overturned a federal jury’s verdict, which had awarded the family of a slain marine at whose funeral the Westboro Baptist Church had protested, $11 million in 2007. The Court ruled that, despite its harsh and controversial nature, the protest was protected by the First Amendment.

“Speech is powerful,” Chief Justice John Roberts wrote. “It can stir people to action, move them to tears of both joy and sorrow, and — as it did here — inflict great pain. On the facts before us, we cannot react to that pain by punishing the speaker.”

Justice Samuel Alito, who was the sole dissenting vote in the Court’s decision, wrote that giving the family some time to grieve without being harassed would not inhibit public debate.

“Our profound national commitment to free and open debate is not a license for the vicious verbal assault that occurred in this case,” Alito wrote.

Amber Cutshaw, junior in photo journalism, says that although the message presented by the church was controversial, the Court made the correct decision. Her main dilemma with the decision revolves around the extreme nature of the church’s message.

“I think it’s because they have such a harsh way of bringing about their opinions, that’s what makes it so hard,” Cutshaw said.  “Because they are so vulgar and so harsh about it, I think that’s what’s gotten under everybody’s skin.”

Clinton Burke, senior political science, says that there was no other way the Supreme Court could have decided the case.

“I agree with the ruling that protects what they (the Westboro Baptist Church) did, even though it’s reprehensible on a lot of levels,” Burke said.  “You can’t blame the judiciary. That’s how our Constitution is written.”

Burke says that the decision helped solidify a precedence of free speech, which will preserve this right for when people really need it.

Mark Arbuckle, associate professor of communication, says that he expected this type of decision.

“Emotionally, I wish there was some way to stop them from doing this, but intellectually, looking at the precedent, it’s not surprising to me at all the way this came out,” Arbuckle said.  “This isn’t breaking new ground for free speech or anything. You look at the facts, and as much as you hate what these people stand for, they followed the law.”

Arbuckle says that if the Court were to restrict speech in this case, even if it might be wrong morally, it would have a negative impact on the future of free speech.

“You can also flip it around,” Arbuckle said.  “If we prohibit these people from expressing themselves because we don’t like what they’re saying, somewhere down the line someone could prohibit what I want to say because they don’t like what I’m saying.”

Burke says that free speech is an important aspect of a democratic society.

“The idea of the free market of ideas is that by allowing everything to be spoken, you should theoretically allow what’s best and truest to prevail,” Burke said.


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