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Justice Mill’s Take on Snyder v. Fred Phelps and the Westboro Baptist Church

November 24, 2010

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?

2 Comments
  1. maqianhu permalink
    November 26, 2010 4:53 PM

    Mill believed that when one’s liberty became a nuisance on other, then his freedom must be restricted. In this particular case, I agree with that this harm on the victim should lead the the restriction and punishment of the people who caused this. Although the nuisance is not directly imposed, but the mentally indirect harm is just as great. So I think Mill would agree that this should lead to restrictions.

  2. brittajones permalink
    November 27, 2010 10:47 PM

    I agree that the WBC is causing Mill’s definition of harm to those they target and that it’s hard to consider the fact that those people have a right to freedom of speech . And according to Mill, a right to be heard but I’m not quite sure that the definition of harm directly applies to the families of passed soldiers. I think that the definition of harm would apply more to soldiers who come home from serving or to homosexuals as in the video you posted. I think the lives of the families of passed soldiers have already been forever changed by their circumstance. And the WBC protesting at their funerals I don’t think would cause them to shy away from the fact that they have lost a loved one in duty but would rather really piss them off (as the man who sued them for $11 million). As for homosexuals and veteran soldiers, they might feel the need to not want to bring attention to themselves and therefore their lives would be altered than what they were before. For example, some soldiers may not wear their uniforms in public or talk about what they have gone through which will in the future cost them their mental health. This applies to homosexuals as well. They may fear being public with their sexuality or may just not want to draw attention to themselves, thus altering their lifestyle.
    And yes. The WBC does have a right according to Mill to have their opinions on war and homosexuality discussed but not at the cost of someone else’s lifestyle for Mill wrote that we have to observe a certain line of conduct if we are to live in a society (p.630).

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