Shouting Fire at a Mosque:Even Terry Jones and the Westboro Baptist Church Deserve First Amendment Protections

A court in Dearborn, Mich., ruled last week that controversial Florida pastor Terry Jones and his meager flock of followers could not stage a protest outside a local mosque, turning the radical pastor into an unsuspecting First Amendment martyr. With the assistance of the Thomas More Law Center, the Quran-burning pastor is now appealing the decision. As vile and hateful as Jones and other fringe groups like the Westboro Baptist congregation are, their First Amendment rights should not be abridged. If Americans are going to defend free speech, they have to defend even speech they disagree with.

The First Amendment states: “Congress shall make no law … 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.” And yet, the history of the United States is fraught with legal battles to define what exactly free speech is. Wearing a shirt adorned with obscenities, burning an American flag, donating huge sums of money to political campaigns – all of these actions have been determined to be protected speech.

Nonetheless, free speech is not an absolute. Fighting words, commercial speech and obscenity rightfully do not share the same level of protection as political speech. Jones and Westboro Baptist leader Fred Phelps are able to spew their toxic dialogue because most courts consider it political discourse. As long as Jones is not inciting violence or violating time, place and manner restrictions, he is free to criticize Sharia law no matter how wrong he is.

Perhaps one of the most contested areas of free speech jurisprudence concerns hate speech. Earlier this year, the Supreme Court adopted one of its most expansive interpretations of the First Amendment in Snyder v. Phelps, allowing the Westboro Baptist congregation the right to protest at military funerals.

Writing for the court, Chief Justice John Roberts stated, “As a nation we have chosen … to protect even hurtful speech on public issues to ensure that we do not stifle public debate.”

Right here on this campus, students have become accustomed to dealing with unpopular speech. The protests staged by Youth for Western Civilization (YWC) earlier this semester provoked a level of dissonance on campus not seen since the riots of 1998 when WSU attempted to become a dry campus. But just like Jones and the Westboro congregation, YWC should be allowed to stage their measly protests and have their words be drowned out in the marketplace of ideas. Had Jones or YWC just been allowed to stage their rallies without the backlash they received, their words would have been forgotten the next day.

In 1977, when neo-Nazis threatened to march through the predominantly Jewish community of Skokie, Ill., the town filed an injunction against them, banning the group from rallying. After an extensive legal battle, the Nazis were granted the right to march, but never followed up on their threat. If you do not defend the rights of Nazis and the Ku Klux Klan, then you are not really an advocate of those rights. Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas said, “The liberties of none are safe unless the liberties of all are protected.”

First Amendment defenders like the American Civil Liberties Union too often rely on the slippery slope argument: if one free speech case is lost, then America will slide into an Orwellian dystopia. However, unpopular speech should be defended because the rights we enjoy today are the result of decades of struggles. Free speech is the life blood of this country. Without it, other liberties would slowly erode.

Listening to unpopular speech is just one of the many inconveniences of living in a tolerant society.

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