Dominick J. White

Protecting Speech… Even Hurtful Speech

Within our Frameworks for Decision Making: Legal Perspectives course, we have spent a great deal of time discussing free speech and the legal interpretation of the first amendment. For me, this topic has admittedly made me a little uncomfortable. As I sit with and unpack this discomfort, I realize that my identities are at the root. As a black gay male, my identities are among the typical causes of free speech discussions. As a leader, specifically a leader within higher education, it is imperative that I remain aware of the biases on this subject. Our review of the Supreme Court case Snyder V. Phelps made this clear for me.

According to Oyez (2021), “the family of deceased Marine Lance Cpl. Matthew Snyder filed a lawsuit against members of the Westboro Baptist Church who picketed at his funeral. The family accused the church and its founders of defamation, invasion of privacy, and the intentional infliction of emotional distress for displaying signs that said, “Thank God for dead soldiers” and “Fag troops” at Snyder’s funeral. U.S. District Judge Richard Bennett awarded the family $5 million in damages, but the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit held that the judgment violated the First Amendment’s protections on religious expression. The church members’ speech is protected, “notwithstanding the distasteful and repugnant nature of the words.”

In reading the opinion, I automatically sided with Snyder based on the impact of the language used by Westboro. However, after reading further, I had to reconcile my personal views with the facts of the case and the law’s interpretation.

To determine if speech is protected under the First Amendment, it must be determined if it is of public or private concern. Speech of public concern is almost always under protection. In this case, speech can be reviewed by the content, form, and context’ to determine if it is of public or private concern. Speech can be considered public concern when “relating to any matter of political, social, or other concern to the community” (Oyez, 2021). In this case, the Westboro picket signs’ content centers upon the U.S. military, Homosexuality, the Catholic church. All of these subjects would be deemed as a public concern.

While this opinion seems clear, the interpretation of free speech is not as always clear. As leaders, we are responsible for guiding those who follow through with the ambiguity that these situations bring. Especially regarding our station in higher education, we have a responsibility to help students to understand that there are times when another person’s view will run counter to their own. At times these views might even be hurtful, as in the Snyder v Phelps case. While their opinions and words are hurtful, they are within their right to be said if the intent is not to harm directly. It is our duty as leaders to foster an environment where individuals with differing views have the opportunity to engage in a dialog to learn from one another respectfully.

 

 

Snyder v. Phelps. (n.d.). Oyez. Retrieved February 26, 2021, from https://www.oyez.org/cases/2010/09-751

 

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