Don't Fight Hate Speech By Limiting Freedom

Published in the Newark Star Ledger on June 8, 2006.

By Deborah Jacobs

Over more than a decade, Fred Phelps and his Westboro Baptist Church of Topeka, Kan., have staged some 22,000 demonstrations of radical homophobia at gay funerals, performances of "The Laramie Project" (about the murder of Matthew Shepard) and at same-sex weddings.

The WBC (most are members of the Phelps family -- it has 13 children and 54 grandchildren) has a virulent anti-gay agenda, and its rhetoric is matched by equally abhorrent anti-Semitic, anti-Catholic, anti-Protestant and racist venom.

Until recently, since this incomprehensible cruelty was targeted only against the loved ones of gay people, the protests haven't received nearly the attention they de serve from the American public.

But now, thanks to the WBC's decision to aggressively picket the funerals of fallen American soldiers, the nation has turned its attention to this small but noisy hate group. The WBC targets fallen soldiers, somehow attributing these tragic deaths to punishment by God for America's tolerance of gay and lesbian people. Carrying signs like "God Hates Fags," WBC members intrude on the most painful and private times that a family can experience.

Legislators nationwide have sprung into action, as the WBC's activities have provoked a flurry of state and federal legislation to ban the protests. Unfortunately, Phelps treats such legislative proposals as a personal invitation and challenge. As soon as he heard that legislation aimed at restricting his protests had legs in the New Jersey Legislature, he vowed to bring his sideshow to the Garden State.

Most of the legislation introduced violates free speech in a big way. New Jersey's bill (A2870), scheduled for an Assembly vote today, prohibits free-speech activities within 500 feet of a funeral and is written so broadly that it restricts more speech than is necessary to prevent disruption of funer als. It sweeps in a range of free speech activities that may be agreeable to and supported by the family members who arranged the funeral (such as peaceful anti-war protesters), that may be wholly un related to the funeral but within the vicinity (such as labor picketing at a site two blocks away from the funeral home) or that may be free- speech activities conducted on private property (such as posting a lawn sign).

Our legislators' desire to silence the WBC is understandable, but it also reflects an unwarranted disre gard for freedom of speech and loss of faith in the marketplace of ideas. We are not a nation that pushes bad ideas underground. We are a people who believe in allowing ideas -- even odious, hurtful ones -- to get out, and we do not hesitate to give a good public tongue- lashing to ideas that deserve it. As Americans, we have used our freedom of speech to -- slowly but surely -- reject hateful, inhumane ideas and allow ideals like equality and justice to flourish.

And flourish they do. To counter the WBC, good ideas are rolling in, on motorcycles. In recent months, members of an organization of motorcyclists called the Patriot Guard Riders have attended funerals on the WBC's hit list in the interest of protecting the privacy of grieving families. Thousands strong, with riders affiliated with more than 80 biker groups, the Patriot Guard Riders do their best to demonstrate patriotism and support for the family and drown out the hateful shouts spewing from the WBC protest.

And it's not just those who ride. In Helena, Mont., when the WBC showed up to protest, a myriad of religious communities came together to oppose and denounce the WBC agenda. This had numerous benefits for the community, including making the WBC activities im potent. The best antidote for hateful speech is more speech. Instead of passing laws that contradict the great American promise of free speech, we should follow the example of those who use their voices to oppose the WBC's hate.

Freedom of speech is our coun try's crowning ideal. It has worked for 230 years, and it's working today. The Assembly should reject the funeral protest ban bill. Patriotism means standing up for free speech and believing in the marketplace of ideas at times like this.

Deborah Jacobs is Executive Director of the American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey. She may be reached at freespeech@aclu-nj.org

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