Hate Speech at The Westboro Baptist Church - Case Study

The topic that I will be discussing in this paper is that should we make hate speech illegal? Throughout history, we have seen many different cases that have been involved around hate speech. In this essay I'm going to discuss one court case and explain what happened and what the outcome was.

Before going into why hate speech should be illegal, let’s determine what actually is hate speech. Hate speech refers to particular expressions of hatred against particular groups of people. Hate speech is associated with various types of harm, at the very least, having direct exposure to hate speech can have a very negative impact on the target’s emotional or psychological well-being. Let’s break down the words hate and speech to truly understand the deeper meaning of what hate speech is. Hate is a human emotion that is triggered or increased through exposure to particular types of information. Hate involves an enduring dislike, loss of empathy and even a desire for harm against particular targets. Speech refers to communication over a number of mediums including spoken words and utterances, text images, videos and even gestures. Hate speech is usually defined more broadly as discrimination, dehumanization, demonization and incitement to violence. The three major categories of hate speech: Dehumanization and demonization, violence and encitement, early warning. Some examples of hate speech are making fun of someone because of their religion, skin color, heritage or any personal belief that they have. We also have to make it clear that people have the right to believe in whatever they want to believe in, but that doesn’t give you the right to mistreat others because you don’t agree with what they believe in.

The case that I will talk about that involves the use of hate speech is between Matthew Snyder vs Fred Phelps. This case is about Fred Phelps and his parishioners at the Westboro Baptist Church believes that god punishes the United States for its tolerance for homosexuality, particularly within the military. To demonstrate their beliefs, Phelps and his followers often picket at military funerals. Albert Snyder’s son, Lance Corporal Matthew Snyder, was killed in the line of duty in Iraq in 2006. Westboro went to Snyder’s funeral and displayed signs that said “God Hates The USA”, “Thank God For 911”, “Thank God For Dead Soldiers” and “Don’t Pray For The USA”. The church had notified the authorities in advance that they planned on showing up to the funeral and holding those signs, they staged their picket on public land adjacent to public street and they complied with all police instructions. Church members also sang hymns and read bible verses. Snyder ended up filing a suit against Phelps, Phelps daughters and the Westboro Baptist Church in the United States District Court for the District of Maryland under the court’s diversity jurisdiction. According to Cornell Law documents, “Snyder alleges five start tort law claims, defamation, publicity given to private life, intentional infliction of emotional distress, intrusion upon seclusion and civil conspiracy”. Westboro claimed and moved for summary judgment contending, in part, that the church’s speech was insulated from liability by the First Amendment. In the end, a jury found Westboro Baptist Church liable for millions of dollars in damages for picketing near a soldier’s funeral service. U.S District Judge Richard Bennett awarded the family $5 million dollars in damages but the U.S Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit ended up overruling this case saying that “the judgement violated the First Amendment’s protection on religious expression”. The church members speech is protected, “notwithstanding the distasteful and repugnant nature of the words”. The significance of Snyder vs Phelps was that the court’s view that the First Amendment protects even the most egregious speech provided that the speech is of public concern in a public place.

I feel like hate speech should honestly be illegal but in my opinion I think hate speech needs to be categorized and told what exactly counts as hate speech and what is illegal. I feel like one of the main reasons why hate speech should be illegal is because of the two rights that are brought into conflict. Those rights that are brought into conflict are equality and the right to be protected from discrimination and freedom of expression. 

In conclusion, hate speech refers to particular expressions of hatred against particular groups of people. Hate speech is associated with various types of harm, at the very least, having direct exposure to hate speech can have a very negative impact on the target’s emotional or psychological well-being. In court cases throughout history, hate speech has been defended under the First Amendment and the Fourth Amendment if actions of hate crimes are not taken and only spoke about and how I believe hate speech should be illegal because of how wrong it is, how hurtful and detrimental it can be. My final point is, the government should create a guideline or law that defines what is legal speech and what is illegal speech. Also, it should talk about what is protected under the First Amendment and what is not protected by the First Amendment.

Works Cited

  • Academic Freedom, Hate Speech, and the Idea of a University. Retrieved April 28, 2021, from https:scholarship.law.duke.educgiviewcontent.cgi?article=4056
07 July 2022
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