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Wednesday, March 02, 2011 

The Westboro Baptists and Harry Hammond.

The ruling of the American supreme court that the notorious Westboro Baptist Church's protests outside the funerals of military personnel are protected under the constitutional right to freedom of speech demonstrates the fundamental difference between the American and European concepts of freedom of expression. The case was taken to the supreme court by Albert Snyder, father of a 20-year-old marine killed in Iraq, after the church protested outside at his funeral in 2006. Snyder had originally sued the Church for intrusion upon seclusion, intentional infliction of emotional distress and civil conspiracy, a jury in the Maryland District Court finding for Snyder, before the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals overturned their verdict on first amendment grounds.

The case substantially mirrors the prosecution of Harry John Hammond, a Christian evangelical preacher from Bournemouth, who in 2002 was convicted under section 5 of the Public Order Act after he had demonstrated in the city centre with a placard which read "Stop Immorality', 'Stop Homosexuality' and 'Stop Lesbianism'", with "Jesus is Lord" also written on all four corners of the sign. Although he died before his appeal reached the High Court, the judgement was upheld, with Lord Justice May ruling that he was "not in the end persuaded that this was a decision that was not open to the justices". Hammond's preaching attracted a crowd of around 30 to 40 people: at one point he was pushed over after the placard was pulled away from him, while someone else poured water over his head. Two police constables attended, with one deciding to arrest him for breaching the peace.

Hammond's sign, for those who haven't previously encountered the Westboro Baptists, was mild when compared to their placards. On the day their signs included ones which proclaimed that "America is doomed", "You're going to hell", "God hates you", "Fag troops", "Semper fi fags" and "Thank God for dead soldiers". Remarkably perhaps, the Westboro Baptists have only rarely encountered violence although they often face much the same reaction as Hammond did, while others have responded to their attention seeking in rather more humourous ways.

Some will argue that being intolerant of such intolerance expressed publicly where it could lead to violence and disorder, outside of the confines of an organised debate on religion and morality, is justified. I however find it difficult to disagree with Justice John Roberts's concluding argument in his ruling (PDF):

Speech is powerful. It can stir people to action, move them to tears of both joy and sorrow, and—as it did here—inflict great pain. On the facts before us, we cannot react to that pain by punishing the speaker. As a Nation we have chosen a different course—to protect even hurtful
speech on public issues to ensure that we do not stifle public debate.

While I don't think there's any danger of that being the case here, it does add to the otherwise laughable narrative from some Christians that they're being actively persecuted. Should such a case come before the courts again, hopefully a braver judge might be prepared to err on the side of recognising that potentially hurtful and insulting speech which is not hateful is deserving of protection.

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