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Does Freedom of Speech Trump Moral Decency?

Updated on March 4, 2011
Talk about Un-American
Talk about Un-American

The Dangers of Free Speech

It started when a gay soldier died in Iraq defending his country. Okay, he wasn't defending us against anything. But he was in Iraq, sent there by this government to carry out whatever the interest is in Iraq. Let's just leave it at that. He goes where he is told and does what he is told to do. Then he dies.

If you have a pulse you already know this story. You heard it on the news or read it in the paper or saw it on the Internet. Matthew Snyder was a gay Marine who died in Iraq and who's father and family and friends were trying to mourn and bury when the Westboro Baptist Church got a call from God himself saying Matthew Snyder was a sinner and he doesn't love him. Yes, that is what they said, apparently, having nothing else to do God stayed on the line a while longer to let them know he wanted more soldiers to die and he hates Obama.

"You're Going to hell" and "Thank God for Dead Soilders" signs, held high outside the church where Mr. Albert Snyder had a difficult time mourning his son.  This was not the only funeral they picketted, however, Mr. Snyder took it to the Supreme court where he lost 8 to 1. HE LOST.

Yes of course, everyone has the same conversation each time a matter such as this rears its ugly head. How does free speech exist if we start to draw lines and change the rules and where does it end? If we say free speech we have to mean for everyone. Even people as ignorant as the Westboro people have a right to be ignorant out loud, in a crowd and be proud. But does that mean that Mr. Snyder did not have the right to privately mourn his son? Where does free speech end and moral decency begin? Isn't it obvious where one should draw a line and just do what is right, Period?

Who are these Crazy People?

In the news all you hear is Westboro Baptist Church. It's really identified as a hate group and is just the huge family of it's founder Fred Phelps. Mostly, this group hates homosexuals, but they don't discriminate, they hate Jews too. Jews are also sinners who are going to hell, although I have not yet figured out why they feel this way. They actually held a protest at the Holocaust Museum in Washington D.C. They have signs that say, and this is truly telling of their ignorance, "Jews Killed the Lord Jesus". Oy, if only they read the good book, you know, the good book the Pope just wrote. He explains to them how Jesus was in fact killed by the Romans and not the Jews. But then I have known this for years. I am shocked the Pope and I are aware of this fact but not people who apparently have a direct line to God. One would think he'd mention this.

This small group of familial lunatics has had a movie made about them called "The Most hated Family in America". So no, it really isn't about them, they are just idiots who claim they spend $200,000. a year flying around picketing funerals as it is there job to spread "God's Hate". My concern does not really lie with the hate mongers. No one gives much creedence to people such as these. But do they truly have the right to be so abjectly offensive in public? Are there no rules to picketing church funerals? Perhaps we never thought it was unnecessary and now perhaps it is.

Personally I think the Westboro Church simply knows what every 4 year old knows, negative attention is better than none at all.

The Justices Have Spoken

Eight of the Nine Supreme court Justices voted to protect the first amendment and by extension, the Westboro Group. But one judge just couldn't do that. It didn't sit right with him that hiding behind the First Amendment to spew hatred was acceptable. That just couldn't be. So Supreme Court Judge Samuel Alito voted against the Westboro Group. He believed that it was morally indecent for them to pickett a Soldier's funeral.

Judge Alito stated that "...when publicly offensive speech is also -- and perhaps primarily -- personally painful, the Constitution doesn't protect it." I agree with him. The Group has a right to their opinions, no matter how mis-guided. They simply should not have the right to interfere, interrupt, or otherwise cause a commotion or potentially violent gathering with their words of hatred at a private funeral. Mr Snyder has rights as well.

Protecting the First Amendment

According to the Bill of Rights in our Constitution of the United States these people have every right to speak out about how they feel about, well, anything because Freedom of Speech, Press, Religion and Petition are number one. There is a reason for this. At the time people were locked up for speaking against their government in Britian and this was the most relevent thing to our founding fathers. The right to say what you feel and not be punished for it simply because someone does not agree. Generally, someone powerful like the government. So they assured us this would never happen by giving us a list of what our new government would NOT do. The first one being, taking away our voice as a people. The people of these United States take their Bill of Rights very, very seriously, especially when it is convenient for them.

But I wonder, the Bill of Rights were written in a different time. People would have not picketed a funeral. They would not say in public the things people say today. Many ugly political remarks were made publicly, even back then, but there were boundaries and most people knew exactly what they were and observed them because observing them showed your moral and ethical beliefs and to society, these things mattered.

Iinterestingly enough just the other day in the supermarket someone asked me what happened to society, there used to be a sense of community and people used to take care of each other. The elderly neighbors, the neighborhood children, everyone kept an eye out for everyone else. If Mr. Simmons the old man three doors down wasn't seen in a few days someone went to check on him and his neighbors would verbally express their concern. Today Mr. Simmons could be dead a good month before anyone in their crazy busy lives even noticed they haven't seen him in a while. Not only don't we take care of each other anymore, we don't care ABOUT each other anymore.

Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., in Schenck v. United States (1919) said:

"...the character of every act depends upon the circumstances in which it is done. The most stringent protection of free speech would not protect a man in falsely shouting fire in a theatre and causing a panic. The question in every case is whether the words used are used in such circumstances and are of such a nature as to create a clear and present danger that they will bring about the substantive evils that Congress has a right to prevent..."

So no one yelled Fire in a crowded theatre. There was no imminent danger. Aren't they basically saying that we have to use common sense in flexing our freedom of speech muscle? Don't we have the "common decency" to know when to voice our opinions and when to shut up? Just because we HAVE a voice doesn't mean we have to use it whenever we damn well please right?

Do we no longer understand what is morally correct? We are so consumed with doing what is politically correct and not offending anyone and everyone with what we say regarding others, but not what we DO. These behaviors don't mesh somehow. What good is one without the other?

Just because one has the legal right to behave in a certain manner doesn't mean they should. There are moral obligations that should come before legal rights. And no one should have to be told what they are, as they are obvious.

I wonder if perhaps we have to stop living in the past. We need to remember history and Americans don't. That is why we keep making the same mistakes over and over again. But we shouldn't live in it. What was back when the constitution was written no longer applies today in very many ways. For instance a right to bear arms was great for the young America and its farmers and hunters. But not today. Today it is more dangerous for the people then useful or helpful.

Perhaps what we need now is a Bill of Rights that defines what is morally appropriate and what is not. We can speak out all we want but not at certain venues or perhaps at certain times of the day. I don't know. But back then when this country was being founded we needed some guide lines as to how this government would work and what they could and could not do. Now the people need some guidelines. A Moral Bill of Rights. The country has come a long way and as it turned out the Constitution helped it along quite well. But as for the people...well, lets just say someone else wrote them a short list of about 10 items to follow for some moral decency and they have a hard time abiding by that one, so I doubt a moral bill of rights would do much good either.

Do you think moral decency trumps free speech?

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    • profile image

      Rozalyn Winters 4 years ago

      I think when a person gives his life for this country, then this country should have the decency to restrict the attendance for that funeral to his mourning relatives and friends.

      The crazies can still protest--but they have to do it far away from the premises--like having a sort of restraining order. You can get a restraining order for a stalker, and these nuts are essentially stalkers.

      Restraining orders do not restrict free speech. They can protest--just far away enough that they do not interfere with the funeral.

    • profile image

      Chanel 5 years ago

      There is no excuse for ignorance. What you learned in kindergarten should be applied in everything you do, at any age.. The difference in right and wrong, good or bad, manners, respect etc. With any freedom comes responsibility. While you may disagree with someone, you can do it in a respectful manner. As for Westboro church there is a special kind of hell for that bunch.

    • profile image

      Haylie 6 years ago

      I would dedfinetly think that freedom of speech is to say what you feel like, whenever, wherever. But nothing against the dead at funeral.

      If you say something or write something online porrly about someone and its what you feel and think, is that a bad thing? its what you want to say and if they'd nt like it then does the writer have to care?

      Im wondering!!!!!!


    • Moonchild60 profile image

      Moonchild60 7 years ago

      Hello James! I am happy to see you, as always.

      Yes, you have a valid point. There are the criminals, but I was hoping they would be disarmed as well. That would be difficult to say the least though wouldn't it? And then the Government. Yes, we would be at the mercy of those with the power AND the weapons so either way we would be in terrible trouble. Had not thought of that. I would imagine that others who want more strict gun control laws are also consumed with how guns are used in private homes and schools to kill the innocent and not so much what would happen if absolutely no one could legally obtain one.

      Hmm, you made me wonder, perhaps the Bill of Rights isn't the issue after all, perhaps it is simply the people.

    • James A Watkins profile image

      James A Watkins 7 years ago from Chicago

      I was surprised at the decision by the Supreme Court. I am all for Free Speech but to spew hatred at a FUNERAL. Surely, a funeral is a place where people should have a right to mourn peacefully that trumps the right of an outsider to Free Speech. The Court didn't see it that way and this disappoints me.

      That said, the Bill of Rights was not written for the specific time it was written. The writers studied thousands of years of human history, human societies and civilizations, all forms of government ever enacted. What they came up with are a permanent set of truths. This may be hard to grasp in our morally relative culture.

      The right to bear arms is as important today as ever. If you make guns illegal, we may fall to tyranny from within, or an army from without. If not, we shall surely be easy pickings for criminals. Their guns are already illegal and will continue to be so. Nobody longs for the day Americans are disarmed more than criminals.

      Your article is great. I agree with you about these nutjobs. They are embarrassing to say the least.

    • Moonchild60 profile image

      Moonchild60 7 years ago

      Thank you very much Mr. Tindle and thank you for coming by and taking the time to comment. I did say that politically speaking they said plenty of ugly things back then however, they would not do something like picket someones funeral or something that could potentially be viewed as a mark against them. In those days how one was perceived by society at large was no small matter and today very few care unless it touches them in their wallets. Going to read your hub this very second...see you there.

    • Mr Tindle profile image

      Mr Tindle 7 years ago


      Though I think the Phelps family is a repulsive group of lunatics, I do believe they should have complete freedom to spew whatever vile hate speech they want. Though it may be offensive and downright immoral, it's a much greater danger to put government in charge of defining what speech should be allowed and what speech shouldn't. Who is smart enough and moral enough to have this kind of responsibility? I mean we are talking about the government here....

      As for your contention that people never engaged in "hate speech" in the beginning of our country, I just don't think that view is accurate. People have always been hateful and ugly to each other. It's not always pretty, but overall freedom of speech has made us a healthier and stronger country than most.

      You should really check out my "Political Hate Speech" hub relating to this same topic. It would give you a more thourough view of were I'm coming from on this and I would love to hear your perspective after reading it.

      Anyway good hub even though I don't completely agree and I voted up!

    • Moonchild60 profile image

      Moonchild60 7 years ago

      Green Lotus - Hello!! How could I have possibly missed seeing you there??!! And it is very nice to see you, as always. Thank you for coming by and commenting!! Yes, sadly there is no "moral police" to enforce people behaving in a decent manner toward each other and by and large, people regularly hide behind "free speech" when they have something horribly ugly to do or say that they know perfectly well be upsetting to society at large.

    • Moonchild60 profile image

      Moonchild60 7 years ago

      Jefsaid - That is a very valid point. I had not thought of that. Thank you for pointing that out. I did not consider personal opinion as part of the judges decisions and you may very well be right. Silly me, what made me think that it is possible for the judges to set aside their personal beliefs when handing down a determination such as that? I am certain that they think they do, but the reality is it is impossible. One has to be aware that these prejudices exist within them in the first place and I doubt this would be the case with any of the judges. Thanks Jefsaid.

    • Jefsaid profile image

      Jefsaid 7 years ago from London, UK

      I am not sure that protests at the funeral of a soldier made by an extremist Islamic group would have received a similar vote...

    • Jefsaid profile image

      Jefsaid 7 years ago from London, UK

      The case that you refer to is interesting in that the US constitutions is based on fundamentally Christian beliefs. I might be leaning towards the controversial here myself but my suspicion is that subliminal views held about the individual's sexual orientation had an influence on the supreme courts rejection of the father's complaint more than simply free speech.

    • Jefsaid profile image

      Jefsaid 7 years ago from London, UK

      Well the dilemma is that the fundamental of social morality is a perceived set of rules assumed by a collective group on how one should conduct themselves. This influences everything, including what is appropriate or inappropriate for one to say or even believe. So in effect, free speech is a contradiction to morality which is why some people's views are suppressed even in societies that wave the flag of free speech like the US and UK. For example, hate preaching and extremist views exceed the boundaries of our moral code.

    • Moonchild60 profile image

      Moonchild60 7 years ago

      Jefsaid - Thank you for coming by. So you do think free speech trumps moral decency? Is there no way they can work hand in hand? Is it not possible for people to behave in a more compassionate manner toward each other without losing their voice? Couldn't the Westboro people for instance, not picket private funerals?

    • Neon_Letters profile image

      Neon_Letters 7 years ago

      Moral decency varies from person to person and freedom will always be freedom.

    • Jefsaid profile image

      Jefsaid 7 years ago from London, UK

      Interesting question. Free speech is a contradiction to moral or ethical codes which by design govern what you say and how you say it. So the answer is yes in my view, Freedom of Speech does Trump Moral Decency...

    • Moonchild60 profile image

      Moonchild60 7 years ago

      Thank you Joshua and you are right. Some people do have a propensity to drive themselves off a cliff and that is their right. What upsets me is when they drag others off the cliff with them. : )

    • Green Lotus profile image

      Hillary 7 years ago from Atlanta, GA

      It's a tricky question since 'free speech' is almost synonymous with American democracy; however, we are supposed to have a living, breathing, set of laws that may be amended as the people see fit. In my opinion harming citizens under the mask of "free speech" is immoral but as you say, it's unfortunate that citizens cannot agree on the definition of morally indecent behavior. Still, it's a great Hub that puts forth a highly intelligent and "moral" viewpoint! Thanks.

    • Joshua Kell profile image

      Levi Joshua Kell 7 years ago from Arizona

      If you you give people the freedom to say what they feel, then their moral decency (or at least their asses) should follow. Right or wrong, I believe that people should be able to say or write, or sing what they like. They should be able to do what they wilt, as long as it does not cause harm. Humans have something within that drives them towards evil and self destruction, they have a right to go to hell if they like. This is the nature of things. So, I say, say what's on your mind. If its crap, so be it. Crap in, crap out, as they say...

    • Moonchild60 profile image

      Moonchild60 7 years ago

      Hey Justom - Good to see you as always. Yes, I have seen them (the police) keeping protestors at political events far away so they will not be a nusiance or dare I say it, be heard. Particularly when something is televised. I also remember Bush making sure that the media reported on Iraq minimally and with NO pictures. Particularly in the early stages. I suppose there are those who get to draw the line at free speech - the ones with the power.

    • Moonchild60 profile image

      Moonchild60 7 years ago

      Hi Greg - Yes I imagine they would probably leave it up to the individual states in the long run, if the government ever decided that things had gone too far, or perhaps if people had decided that things had gone too far and we had broken our moral compass, but I for one will not be holding my breath. Thanks for coming by and commenting Greg.

    • Moonchild60 profile image

      Moonchild60 7 years ago

      Hi Will - Yes you are right, even those among us with misguided opinions have a right to them and a right to speak them. I do not know who would decide where to draw the line, or lines. I was thinking in a democracy, we would all vote for them. But then again, like I stated in my hub, that is no guarantee that people would follow them anyway. I worry about where our country is going on many levels and how we treat each other is one of them. Thanks so much for coming by and being my first visitor! Take Care Will.

    • justom profile image

      justom 7 years ago from 41042

      Excellent hub. Free speech my ***. Have you seen what they do now to protesters of a political nature. They tell them they have the right but make them stay so far away from the rally that, unless the news folks decide to cover it, no one would ever know they were even there. Sometimes the world seems backwards and wrong is now the new right. Hope you're doing well. Peace!! Tom

    • gregas profile image

      Greg Schweizer 7 years ago from Corona, California.

      Hi Moon, I am a strong believer in free speech, but yes there has to be a point where human decency has to be respected. These people have the right to say what they want, but they should only be allowed to say it from Westboro. They should NOT be allowed to appear at the funerals in other states and disrespect the dead. If I remember correctly, they did the same thing at the funeral of the 9 year old girl shot in Arizona. The individual states should be allowed to stop them from causing a scene in that state. These people must think they are so perfect. I would love to have the freedom to see what their backgrounds look like. But, I'm sure we are limited to what we can do there. Anyway, very well written and informative hub. Greg

    • WillStarr profile image

      WillStarr 7 years ago from Phoenix, Arizona

      Who would decide what is morally decent? “Free speech” in the first amendment is primarily political speech protected from government interference. If we allowed only ‘morally decent’ free speech, the decider would have to be the same government that is prohibited from interfering.

      Freedom means that even the most vile among us have the same rights. Silencing anyone has the effect of silencing everyone. BTW, that’s also the danger of political correctness! Have you noticed the effort to silence the free speech criticism of Obama by claiming it’s racist? That’s the equivalent of applying ‘moral decency”!

      Very thoughtful Hub! Voted up and awesome.


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