The WBC and the limits of free speech
Freedom of speech is a tenet of American culture that is constantly threatened and upheld by opposing forces in the culture, and has often gotten groups and individuals into hot debate over when speech crosses into illegal territory. An excellent example of this is the Westboro Baptist Church, a frantically passionate church group that travels the country with supporter fund picketing funerals and other sensitive events in the name of spreading awareness, usually about their own organization and what "God hates."
Time and time again, those offended by the words of the organization have tried and failed to successfully sue the WBC and its leader Fred Phelps, but the church is protected under freedom of speech no matter how harmful the message they perpetuate is. Because the group abides by basic picketing laws to preserve their brand, the Westboro Baptist Church has proved to be one of the country's glimpses at the dark side of freedom of speech.
A short history of the Westboro Baptist Church
Founded in 1956 by former Baptist priest Fred Phelps, the WBC is technically unaffiliated with the international network of Baptist churches and qualifies specifically as a hate group. Though their ideology dictates the spread of distrust and God's hate to the world, some of the organization's most common gripes are with the gay community – it's most common to see the WBC picketing an event, memorial or funeral by detracting a person or company for being supportive of gay people.
According to news site Listverse, the Church first came into the headlines for their fervent protest of the funeral of Matthew SHepard, a 21-year-old University of Wyoming student who had been tortured to death because of his openly gay lifestyle in 1991. Many in the general public were shocked that any group would openly oppose something so sad and indicative of an unaccepting culture, and the WBC became cartoonish bad guys in the eyes of the media from there on out. Since Shepard's funeral, the WBC has appeared at countless soldiers' burials, the Boston Marathon bombings memorial service and gay pride parades all over the country.
Fred Phelps passed away of natural causes after nearly sixty years working with the Westboro Baptist Church in 2014, and his daughter Shirley (also a member) released a statement explaining that since the WBC did not worship the dead, there would be no funeral held. Following his passing, the Church has continued to travel and protest as usual.
Why they can't be stopped
In 2010, the Snyder vs. Phelps case decided the state of the Westboro Baptist Church when it came to spreading their agenda, and the organization was completely protected under First Amendment rights, according to CNN contributor Gabe Rottman. As long as the Church abided by the rules of nonviolent protest, which include limitations on how close a picket can take place to a cemetery and restrictions on the times at which they can be held, there is nothing the offended everyday citizen can do to stop the WBC.
"If the First Amendment means anything, it's that the government cannot target a group for censorship because it disagrees with the group's message," the source explained. "This legislation does exactly that."
According to Rottman, this fact doesn't stop citizens angry with the practices of the church from counter-protesting under the same restrictions, and many have taken advantage of their First Amendment rights in the same way the WBC has to voice their disapproval. In this way, freedom of speech in America redeems itself in a roundabout way – though it does enable nonviolent hate groups, it also empowers their detractors with equal vigor.