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When is free speech really ‘hate speech?’

December 22, 2012
The Inter-Mountain

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances. ~ The First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution

The First Amendment, printed above in its entirety, affords freedoms we as Americans hold dear. As professional journalists, this amendment allows us to perform our duty. We act as the fourth unofficial branch of government - serving as watchdogs who force government officials to conduct business in the light of day. We do this to protect the public's best interest.

The liberties the First Amendment guarantees are among the most treasured in our nation. They also are hallmarks of what separates the United States from so many countries. These liberties ensure we remain a democracy versus any other form of government and free from persecution.

However, despite all of that - and the great reverence with which we regard the Bill of Rights, of which the First Amendment is a part - it is important to note that with rights come responsibilities, and, in some cases, consequences.

While we are guaranteed the right to free speech, the First Amendment doesn't absolve someone who commits slander or libel. An individual who is found to make false claims or knowingly damage someone's reputation either through the spoken or written word can be held liable for those actions.

Americans may practice religion, but their practices or observances cannot go against other rules of law in our country. An example of this would be if a faith believed in polygamy - or plural marriage - this act still would be considered illegal because it violates other laws of our land. The same is true for sexual assault, abuse or other crimes that could be committed under the cover of religion. Our courts have upheld that the practice of one's faith doesn't absolve someone of or protect someone from prosecution for wrongdoing.

That brings us to Westboro Baptist Church, which is based in Topeka and led by Fred Phelps. It is known for its extreme views, especially its stance against homosexuals and certain ethnic groups, including Jews. Members actively seek publicity by exploiting the most tragic of situations, including conducting anti-gay protests at the funerals of America's fallen soldiers. Signs protestors have displayed include the following hate-filled slogans: God Hates Fags, Thank God for Dead Soldiers, Pray for More Dead Soldiers and more.

This group - like a parasite - attaches to any host (event) that has the potential to come into the public spotlight. The latest place where Westboro members have threatened to picket is the funerals of victims from Sandy Hook.

While we respect all the tenets of the First Amendment, it is hard to fathom our nation's Founding Fathers envisioned these baseless attacks as protected speech. We have to question how the conduct in which Westboro members engage is any different from someone burning a cross in the yard of a black American.

We think the message is the same: hate. Our nation and its policies have evolved throughout the years to match social change. The Civil Rights movement helped to further clarify not only what was is socially acceptable by today's standards, but also legally permissible.

We urge our country's leaders to look closely at the laws and at Westboro Baptist Church, especially its nonprofit status. America is land of the free and home of the brave, but no group or citizen's rights should cause harm or damage to others. The latter appears to be WBC's only mission.



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