Should hate groups be covered by the First Amendment? The Westboro Baptist Church is well-known for picketing funerals of gay people and gay servicemen. This group frequently carries signs that...

Should hate groups be covered by the First Amendment?

The Westboro Baptist Church is well-known for picketing funerals of gay people and gay servicemen. This group frequently carries signs that say, “God Hates Fags.” They often desecrate the American flag as a protest of what they see as America’s condoning of gays. This group has been identified as a hate group and their activities are monitored by the Anti-Defamation League and the Southern Poverty Law Center. Despite rhetoric that is abhorrent to most, in 2011, the United States Supreme Court ruled that this group, and others like them, have a right to free speech under the First Amendment. Should hate groups be covered by the First Amendment? 

Expert Answers
Lorraine Caplan eNotes educator| Certified Educator

It is clear that hate groups are protected by the First Amendment, and in fact, the First Amendment is meant to protect unpopular, distasteful, or unpleasant speech and  opinions.  One of the more famous test cases was when a group of Neo-Nazis wanted to have a parade in Skokie, Illinois, which was then the home of many Holocaust survivors, and deliberately chosen for the parade because of its population.  The ACLU defended the group's right in court, as well they should have.  Many Jewish people stopped donating to the ACLU after that case, but that was wrong, I felt, and I continued to donate.  If all we protect is speech we like, what is the point of having this amendment? 

Now what government can do is regulate the time, place, and manner of speech and assemblies, requiring a permit, for example, or limiting demonstration times to daylight hours.   Ordinances that require abortion protesters, for example, to remain so many feet away from a clinic have passed muster under the First Amendment, because a public place has the right to not have its entry way blocked.  But even then, if the government's motive is suspect, the court will look behind the regulatory action to be sure that the intent is not to limit or eliminate the speech itself.

I heard within the last day or so that the Obama administration is going to try to limit the ability to "picket" military funerals, but I cannot imagine that this can possibly pass muster constitutionally.  Even with the conservative Supreme Court we have presently, the First Amendment has remained pretty much sacred, as well it should be.


wannam eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Unfortunately, I have to agree that they have the right to free speech.  Of course, their freedom has its limits.  They cannot physically harm anyone at the services they disrupt and they are usually not allowed within a certain radius of the services.  For example, they cannot enter the church or grave site as those are private property.  They do have the right to stand on the side walk or other public areas.  I find their message repulsive and their actions despicable, but they do have the right to continue.  I think the best way to combat hate groups is to create more groups willing to oppose them.  At many funeral services, local groups have organized human walls or other means of blocking out the protesters.  There have been some interesting incidents involving this particular group.  In one town, the group found all their vehicles to be blocked in the parking lot.  Police arrived on the scene but their towing service was running behind.  The police did fulfill their legal obligation to handle the matter but their certainly isn't anything illegal about a delay in towing a car.  Other incidents have been less tricky for city officials.  While I detest their opinion, they have the right to spread that opinion.  Those with an opposing viewpoint have to speak out as well.

Karen P.L. Hardison eNotes educator| Certified Educator

I agree with litteacher on this. I am shocked that language targeted at individuals or groups is now defined as protected speech. As far as I know, this is an unprecedented application of free speech. Historically, as I understand it, free speech might be aimed at public political figures and government policy or employers and corporations or at foreign nations or that nation's emigres during times of war. As far as I am aware, this is the first time inflammatory speech has been protected when directed at private citizens who are not in national attention for exceptional causes, be it crimes or achievements.

Historically, this kind of private individual or private group directed speech fell under defamation laws. It seems the Supreme Court ruling overturns the time honored protection against defamation of character. I absolutely believe hate speech from hate groups should not be protected under the Bill of Rights, especially when such hate speech is orchestrated in an organized manner to constitute a group assault (especially under the guise of Christianity since hate speech denies and obviates the most fundamental premise of Christianity, which is the commandment of love). I absolutely disagree with the Supreme Court ruling. It is shocking.

rrteacher eNotes educator| Certified Educator

I have to agree with the consensus here. The Westboro Baptist Church case was the most recent, but the Supreme Court has repeatedly ruled that hate speech is protected constitutionally. In one example, cited below, they even ruled that hate crimes have to be very narrow. The thing is that popular, mainstream, widely accepted ideas don't need constitutional protection. It's the fringe ideas, many of which I, and just about everyone else, regard as reprehensible that have to be protected. And I would argue that our interest in open, free discourse necessitates that they are protected. The spirit of the First Amendment is that we don't want government legislating what ideas are acceptable, and this includes, in my view, hateful ideas.


brettd eNotes educator| Certified Educator

The court was quite clear in this ruling, in fact it was a unanimous decision, and as much as I hate to say it (I find the actions of the Westboro Baptist Church reprehensible), I agree with the justices on this decision.

That is to say, I believe hate speech is protected, and hate groups are protected when they engage in the exercise of that speech.  When they cross the line into acts of violence or intimidation, or when they seek to deprive others of their rights, then this is not protected action.  Courts have been very clear on the distinction between speech and action.

We also have an obligation as citizens to counter such speech in the public discourse, because, while it is legal, it surely isn't responsible or moral.  Silence on our part would equal complicity.

pohnpei397 eNotes educator| Certified Educator

I do believe that hate groups and hate speech should be protected under the First Amendment.  The reason for this is that any attempt to ban their speech would be excessively broad.  There is simply no way to single out some kind of speech and call it "hate speech" without including other kinds of speech that might be perfectly acceptable as political speech.

For example, where does one draw the line on speech about immigrants and immigration?  If I say that America was created as a white country and should remain white-dominated, is that hate speech or is that a political opinion?  Very hard to tell.  Therefore, we have to protect hate speech to avoid infringing on the undoubted right to express one's political opinion.

shake99 eNotes educator| Certified Educator

If such groups are not threatening the physical safety of others then they should be afforded first amendment protection. Not to do so would put the government in the position of deciding which people or groups would receive first amendment protection, and we definitely do not want the government doing that.

Freedom of speech means having to put up with hearing things we don't like.

litteacher8 eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Personally, I do not think hate groups should have free speech rights.  They are being harmful.  When they attack another group verbally, that can be just as damaging as attacking them physically.  No one should be allowed to make anyone else feel afraid.