Justice Mill’s Take on Snyder v. Fred Phelps and the Westboro Baptist Church
Disclaimer: I must admit that I feel strongly about this topic. Nevertheless, I will try to present this post from an objective perspective, unless otherwise noted.
In section yesterday, my class analyzed real and hypothetical Supreme Court cases in terms of how Mill would rule and how we would rule, and I would like to do the same here. Imagine the Supreme Court case of AnyVictim v. Fred Phelps and the Westboro Baptist Church.
For those who aren’t aware, here’s a summary of what the WBC stands for (Sidenote: You know it’s bad when Fox News is coming to the aid of homosexuals):
As we know, Mill supports all speech, except:
Acts of whatever kind, which, without justifiable cause, do harm to others, may be, and in the more important cases absolutely require to be, controlled by the unfavourable sentiments, and, when needful, by the active interference of mankind. The liberty of the individual must be thus far limited; he must not make himself a nuisance to other people.
WBC does not bring physical harm to anyone, this much is true. According to them, they merely take advantage of their rights to free speech, assembly, and petition. The question is, would Mill consider the WBC protests, particularly those at military funerals, to be harmful? I propose that he would.
Professor LaVaque-Manty offered a nifty flow chart for determining whether an act should earn punishment, and the main question was whether the act was other-regarding or not. In this case, I believe the answer is obvious: absolutely yes. Following that logic, it is obvious that the WBC deserves to be punished.
Of course, that is not where we should end discussion. The WBC presents an opposing view, which Mill would likely say is beneficial for society – after all, what if it’s the truth? We need to, at the very least, discuss it. But, we must also consider the definition of harm we learned in lecture on Monday:
Harm is when people can no longer live their life as they did before.
The father of Lance Corporal Matthew Snyder, I wager, can no longer live his life in the same manner that he did before his son’s funeral (Lance Corporal Snyder was killed in a Humvee crash in Iraq). Of course, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that Snyder’s life would be different without his son. But, I believe that going through the motions of a funeral and all things similar would be much more difficult if questions like, “Will they follow us home?”, “Will they attack us?”, and the more long-term, “These people are lunatics – do I have to fear for my life? What about my family?”, were ever present. It could be argued that Snyder will forever fear for his life and the lives of his family, thereby forcing him, and his family for that matter, to live their lives more cautiously than they would have otherwise. Thus, I propose that they have been harmed by Mill’s definition and therefore deserve to be punished.
In these terms, I would certainly agree with Mill. Would you?