Fred Phelps: First Amendment Hero and Vile Human Being

This is the despicable Fred Phelps. If you’ve never come across this smiling face, you’re either a Boeotian or have been in a coma. The Washington Post noted that

Phelps rose to fame (or infamy) for his decades-long work of “opposing the homosexual lifestyle of soul-damning, nation-destroying filth,” according to the church Web site. He expressed that opposition by picketing the funerals of service men and women who in his view had been killed in wartime by a vengeful God punishing the United States for its increasing acceptance of gay rights. Many a grieving family had to put a loved one to rest within view of Phelps and others holding signs saying, “Thank God for Dead Soldiers,” “Thank God for 9/11” and his signature slogan, “God hates fags.”

But here’s the rub, the irony. Pastor Fred did more to solidify First Amendment protections than most people you or I ever knew. Perhaps inadvertently, but he did nonetheless.

In the holding in Snyder v. Phelps, 131 S.Ct. 1207 (2011), Chief Justice Roberts for the majority noted the following.

Our holding today is narrow. We are required in First Amendment cases to carefully review the record, and the reach of our opinion here is limited by the particular facts before us. As we have noted, “the sensitivity and significance of the interests presented in clashes between First Amendment and [state law] rights counsel relying on limited principles that sweep no more broadly than the appropriate context of the instant case.” Florida Star v. B.J. F., 491 U.S. 524, 533, 109 S.Ct. 2603, 105 L.Ed.2d 443 (1989).

Westboro believes that America is morally flawed; many Americans might feel the same about Westboro. Westboro’s funeral picketing is certainly hurtful and its contribution to public discourse may be negligible. But Westboro addressed matters of public import on public property, in a peaceful manner, in full compliance with the guidance of local officials. The speech was indeed planned to coincide with Matthew Snyder’s funeral, but did not itself disrupt that funeral, and Westboro’s choice to conduct its picketing at that time and place did not alter the nature of its speech.

Speech is powerful. 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. As a Nation we have chosen a different course—to protect even hurtful speech on public issues to ensure that we do not stifle public debate. That choice requires that we shield Westboro from tort liability for its picketing in this case.

Fred is dead. But the First Amendment lives on. Because despicable people test the protections we count on. Take this character. Do you recognize him?

I’ll give you a hint.

You have the right to remain silent. Anything you say can and will be used against you in a court of law. You have the right to an attorney. If you cannot afford an attorney, one will be provided for you. Do you understand the rights I have just read to you? With these rights in mind, do you wish to speak to me?

Yep, this is Ernesto Miranda. The namesake of Miranda v. Arizona, 384 U.S. 436 (1966), who in 1976 was stabbed to death in a bar fight. A law professor of mine received a letter from his mother with a newspaper clipping indicating the demise of Ernie. She wrote a note: “Poor Ernesto. After all he did for us.”

Ernesto and Fred were wastes of flesh. But the rulings and holdings that their cases inspired make us a better country. They help reaffirm that which we knew and know to be true. If these two hominids enjoy Constitutional rights, we all do.

So, rot in hell, you bastards. And thank you.

Trackbacks and Pingbacks:

%d bloggers like this: