Communication Currents

Members of Westboro Baptist church

Communities Respond to Westboro Baptist Church’s Hate Speech

October 1, 2016
Freedom of Expression

According to the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), there were 892 active hate groups operating in the United States in 2015. Among these is the Westboro Baptist Church, based in Topeka, Kansas, which has made a name for itself with anti-LGBT rhetoric, picketing of LGBT funerals, and, most recently, picketing at military personnel funerals.

According to past research, the church’s protesters contend that the deceased U.S. military personnel are evidence that “God is punishing this nation for its tolerance of homosexuality and other vices.” In her most recent research, Billie Murray of Villanova University examines the symbolic and spatial contexts surrounding funeral picketing and argues that these contexts both enable and constrain particular community responses to hate speech. In addition, she examines how the U.S. Supreme Court decision in Snyder v. Phelps (2010), which protects Westboro’s hate speech, facilitates a particular kind of response to hate speech, one that is based in corporeal presence.

To study the different types of community responses to Westboro’s funeral picketing activities, Murray analyzed two media texts, namely mainstream media accounts of Angel Actions staged at funerals around the country and promotional videos and web materials created by the Patriot Guard Riders. At the funeral of Matthew Shepard, a young gay man who was brutally murdered in Wyoming, Angel Action counter-demonstrators wore white angel costumes with 10-foot wingspans rising seven feet to protect mourners at the funeral from having to see Westboro’s signs reading “Matt in Hell” and “God Hates Fags.” The Patriot Guard Riders (PGR) send motorcycle enthusiasts who, when invited by the families of fallen soldiers, use their motorcycles and large U.S. flags to shield mourners from Westboro’s messages at funerals and along funeral routes. Murray also conducted fieldwork as a member of a human wall action staged against the threat of a Westboro picketing in Charleston, South Carolina, during the funerals of victims of the mass shooting at Emanuel AME Church.

Hate Speech and the First Amendment 

The United States has a long history of philosophical traditions that promote the tolerance of hate speech. Although a controversial claim, some have argued that the country has in fact reached a level of “pure tolerance” in terms of protecting hate speech. Past cases, such as the National Socialist Party of America v. Skokie (1977),have solidified freedom for “speech we hate” as fundamental to preserving First Amendment rights for all.

However, Murray notes, not all scholars agree that tolerance of hate speech is productive in democratic societies. Some critical race theorists have argued that hate speech violates the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. Scholars such as John Downing argue that the tolerance of hate speech in fact leads to an increase in such speech over time. One solution to these problems can be found in the idea of “speaking back.” As Justice Louis Brandeis in Whitney v. California said, “the remedy to be applied is more speech, not enforced silence.” So in what ways can communities and individuals respond to hate speech without relying on government intervention?

Setting Boundaries 

In the case of Snyder v. Phelps, the Supreme Court protected Westboro’s right to protest at Shephard’s funeral because its speech was at a public space on a matter of public concern. This decision ensures “an increase in the amount and variety of hate speech that generally cannot be combatted through criminal or civil legal action.” She contends that the only recourse Snyder leaves available for counter-protesters is a corporeal response that shields mourners from Westboro.

Snyder, she argues, not only enables, but encourages communities to take responsibility for asserting a “zone of privacy” by using their own bodies, especially in these funeral spaces. And, although certain parts of funerals occur in public spaces, mourners view that space and their grief as strictly private. This is where groups such as Angel Action and PGR come into play; the community members who belong to these groups share this sentiment. PGR’s mission statement, for example, is to protect the “mourning family and their friends from interruptions created by any protestor.” Ultimately, Murray writes, the ruling leaves open the possibility for community members to “reassert a private boundary around the ‘public’ funeral space.”

Bodies That Shield 

In recent years, the federal government and several states have instituted picketing laws that institute buffer zones to create boundaries between demonstrators and mourners. But these buffer zones are not enough for counter-demonstrators as they do not protect mourners from Westboro’s large signs and messages. “Empty buffer zones do not shield,” Murray writes, “since shields need to be solid; therefore, the empty space must be filled to protect mourners from the public, political, and profane messages of Westboro.”

In a space as sensitive as a funeral, “more speech” is taking the form of people becoming physical boundaries between public and private spaces. Murray concludes that the Snyder v. Phelps decision constrains dialogic responses to hate speech, but enables corporeal responses:

If the spectacular variety of hate speech is truly on the rise, we, as scholars of the First Amendment, should be open to a broader range of responses to hate speech in those contexts where equal and opposing speech is constrained, and “more speech” is not an option. In such moments, the best defense for words that wound may, in fact, be bodies that shield.

About the author (s)

Billie Murray

Villanova University

Associate Professor