Free speech or rhetorical hyperbole?

Published 8:52 am Tuesday, June 8, 2010

No where in the United States Constitution is there a mention of proper manners. I guess our Founding Fathers left that up to the mamas, across what are now all 50 states, to teach.

Apparently, someone forgot to teach some manners to the congregation of Westboro Baptist Church and to its founder, Fred Phelps.

It appears that the Westboro folks, based in Topeka, Kansas, think it’s just fine and dandy to show up at funerals of our brave men and women who have died in the ongoing war against terrorism and picket those events. They also have been known to sing songs at those funerals, musical verses that mock the military.

Perhaps the Westboro parishioners have confused free speech with proper manners.

I’m a firm believer and advocate for First Amendment rights. Without that key component of the Constitution, I’d be working in a factory or digging ditches for a living rather than being a newspaper employee.

However, there is a proverbial line drawn in the proverbial sand when it comes to exercising freedom of speech. Sure, we all have differing opinions and beliefs. It’s when you cross the line of what is accepted as fact…or the truth among the majority…and spew outright lies and deception, you teeter on the edge of free speech.

This is the congregation of Baptist church we’re discussing here. Have they fallen off the deep end of the religious pool, hit their ‘noggins on concrete and lost knowledge of all the teachings of their faith?

I was raised a Baptist…remembering the earliest song…“Jesus loves me this I know for the Bible tells me so.” Or what about John 3:16 – “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.”

So when members of Westboro Baptist Church bear signs at military funerals that read – “Thank God for Dead Soldiers,” “God Hates You,” “Pray for More Dead Kids,” and “One, Two, Three, Four: God hates the Marine Corps” – haven’t they lied based on the most basic scripture from the Bible?

According to an article I read on the News and Observer’s website over the weekend, the church teaches that U.S. troop deaths, along with AIDS, 9/11, Hurricane Katrina, mining accidents and other disasters, are an expression of God’s wrath against the nation for allowing homosexuality, abortion, divorce and other things it regards as sins. Westboro targets the military, it says, because U.S. forces fight to defend what the church sees as America’s sinful ways.

In that same article, North Carolina Attorney General Roy Cooper has joined his colleagues from 47 other states and the District of Columbia in support of a lawsuit against Westboro Baptist Church. That suit will be heard by the U.S. Supreme Court. At the root of this legal action are the rights of private people to assemble peacefully for a funeral – deemed a religious ceremony.

In 2006, the Westboro group protested at the funeral of Matthew Snyder, a Marine from Maryland killed in action in Iraq. His father sued the group, alleging invasion of privacy, intentional infliction of emotional distress and civil conspiracy. One year later, a jury awarded the Snyder family $2.9 million in compensatory damages and $8 million in punitive damages. The award was later reduced and then overturned when an appeals court sided with church members who argued their First Amendment rights had been violated, saying their conduct was “rhetorical hyperbole” protected by the First Amendment.

By that judgment, I guess it’s okay to overly exaggerate a statement – even to the point of terrorizing a peaceful assembly such as a funeral – but in the end everything is okay because we know not to take your statement literally.

I hope our Supreme Court justices come up with a better answer than that and overturns the lower court’s ruling. If not, then look out…some religious fanatics or other crazies will show up with protest signs and songs at a wedding, baptism or any other peaceful assembly.

(Cal Bryant is Editor of the Roanoke-Chowan News-Herald and Gates County Index. He can be reached at or 252-332-7207.)