A Picket on Both Sides: Free Speech on Campus


“Speech is powerful,” US Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts wrote of the Westboro Baptist Church. “[Speech] can stir people to action, move them to tears of both joy and sorrow, and — as it [does] here — inflict great pain. On the facts before us, we cannot react to that pain by punishing the speaker.”

In a much criticized 2011 decision,  the US Supreme Court deemed that the WBC’s funeral-picketing and often-enraging actions fall under the free speech and peaceful protest protections of the First Amendment of the US Constitution. The subject of much criticism and debate nationally, this discourse has been thrust upon the MSU community following the WBC announcement that they will be protesting on campus Sept. 9.

In a message to the campus community last Thursday, President Cruzado noted that MSU is “bound by the First Amendment…and will honor the right of free speech and the right of people to protest peacefully.”

Beyond this rare instance alone, MSU must continue to uphold its duty to the First Amendment rights held by every person who passes through campus.

Tragically, it is often only through high-profile cases involving the unconventional use of freedoms—such as freedom of speech—that we take the time to formally acknowledge those rights. If the average American can’t so much as name the five freedoms granted by the First Amendment, it seems unlikely that we as a society can truly comprehend the power of those freedoms.

Despite this, the rights prevail. Though Fred Phelps and his family may use their First Amendment rights to express bigotry and hate, many others use them for just cause, including on college campuses everyday.

A newspaper, such as this one, uses the First Amendment to spread information without fear of interference and censorship. Thus, [pullquote align=”right”]the same set of rights that allows the WBC to spew hateful, morally repugnant messages are those that allow us to publish freely each week.[/pullquote] Any church may use the freedom of religion clause to practice their religion free of prosecution.

Students and professors, either through protest, petition or speech, use their rights to question the school’s administration, and demand that their perspective and needs be considered.

In this same vein, peaceful counter-protests to the WBC’s presence on campus have been planned, choosing to fight fire with fire, or ideas with ideas, as the case may be.

It’s important to note that the WBC often plans protests that they ultimately don’t show up for. They have historically failed to attend events ranging from celebrity funerals to campus protests and the aftermath of high-profile tragedies. The tactic — one that works — is to incite the community, and therefore increase the church’s notoriety by keeping their hateful messages on people’s mind.

Regardless of whether the church’s infamous neon signs do appear in Bozeman on Monday, the protests allows an opportunity for reflection on the undeniable and critical rights handed to every American citizen. And, perhaps most importantly, though the WBC and others who preach intolerance and bigotry have the undeniable right to speak, the MSU community has the right to not listen.