The Westboro Baptist Church is an independent, small church operating in Topeka, Kansas. Pastor Fred Phelps leads the church. The church openly professes extremist views, and has gained notoriety from picketing military funerals, stating that deceased servicemen and women are the God's punishment for waging war. They call the U.S the “evil nation.” WBC's internet page, godhatesfags.com, believes that the church conducts “peaceful demonstrations opposing the fag lifestyle of soul-damning, nation-destroying filth.” WBC opened services in 1995, and started its picketing in 1991. It states that it has held 48,341 pickets to date.
Although the church only has a small gathering, it has created interest and sparked controversy. In 2007, WBC was the subject of Louis Theroux's BBC video documentary called The Most Hated Family in America. In 2011, the family of an U.S Marine whose funeral had been picketed filed a lawsuit against Phelps. Snyder v Phelps was heard by the U.S supreme court, which ruled eight-to-one in favor of WBC during appeal. This case provoked debate among scholars and the public, as people questioned the appropriateness of limiting free speech when applied to such protests.
The Westboro Baptist Church’s activities and views are abhorrent. However, the supreme court’s ruling in favor of Phelps in the Snyder case is one that must be supported, and more generally there is an undeniable right for such a group to exist. Picketing at funerals does deliver more extreme emotional damage families of the victims than other forms of free speech, but the remedy should not be to limit the right of these groups to picket. There are already existing limits on the proximity in which such picketing of the funerals can be, which must be strictly enforced in order to foster a level of respect for the funeral services of grieving families. Also, the response, instead of limiting the right to picket, should be the vigorous protest against such picketing as well as active public dissent. This idea of debating opinionated speech would be encouraged by Alexander Mieklejohn and JS Mill in that although the ruling was held in favor of Phelps, the court case proved to have some favorable outcomes for those opposing the church’s speech. The fact that the court case took place at all brought the issue into the public realm, and evoked much public response against Westboro Baptist Church.
Meiklejohn argued that there must be no limits to the free flow of information and thoughts. He believed that giving people the right to speak is essential because it allows ideas to be passed around. Meiklejohn developed the idea of private and public speech, which grants absolute protection to public speech. From this point of view, members of the Westboro Church were exercising their rights to freedom of speech, since they were 1,000 feet away from the funeral while expressing their personal beliefs. Even though the words on their signs apparently harmed Snyder...