Being able to freely say or do whatever you want is a right that people in North America value immensely. You can have any opinion or belief, no matter whom it offends, and can protect yourself with the often-used claim, “It’s a free country.”
Not only does this excuse get thrown around in casual settings when your outspoken, opinionated friend says something offensive, but groups have also used it in court to protect their hate speech.
The Westboro Baptist Church (WBC), a notorious small religious group in Kansas, have defended their vulgar and anti-Semitic, homophobic, anti-liberal, anti-everything actions in the Supreme Court in Washington.
The group believes that homosexuality is degrading America. Their logic follows that god is punishing the U.S. and their support of homosexuality by killing people through war, mass shootings, AIDS, etc. Many in the group are lawyers by day and won the church a landmark case regarding hate speech and freedom of speech.
Albert Snyder, the father of Marine Matthew Snyder who died in Iraq, brought the group to court after the WBC picketed Matthew’s funeral. In October 2007, the court ruled in favour of Snyder and awarded him a total of US $10.9 million.
WBC appealed the ruling in 2009 and the court reversed the verdict, ruling Snyder to pay US $16,510 for WBC court costs.
Justice John Roberts said about the ruling, “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 the pain by punishing the speaker.”
This group used their right to freedom of speech and freedom of religion as a way to infringe on others’ rights to love who they want and live the way they view as right.
The WBC is an extreme example of the freedom of religion and speech used as a defence mechanism. Thankfully, organizations like this are rare in Canada. There are groups, however, that use their freedoms as a way to condemn other individuals’ freedoms.
Recently, a new anti-bullying legislation, Bill 18, has been introduced in Manitoba. Private faith-based schools have argued that this legislation, which states that gay-straight alliances (GSA) must be permitted in schools, infringe on their religious rights.
Religious groups, mainly in the City of Steinbach, have vehemently opposed this bill. They believe that the allowance of LGBTT* students to feel safe and supported should not be permitted in an institute that interprets homosexuality as a sin. And so, words of disapproval and judgment are passed on to young LGBTT* students who already feel isolated and frightened in the name of freedom of speech.
A Steinbach city councillor, Susan Penner, recently told the CBC that she felt that Mennonites were again being persecuted for their beliefs due to Bill 18. Mennonites founded the city of Steinbach after fleeing from religious persecution in Russia.
What is ironic is that religious groups in Steinbach are persecuting a minority, LGBTT* students, by saying that LGBTT* students’ right to feel supported infringes on their religious rights. They seem to be doing the very same thing that they are afraid will happen to them – persecution.
It is not only religious groups that seem to use their freedom of speech to infringe on others’ rights. Countless religious groups themselves have also experienced discrimination and persecution for being the minority and believing what they believe.
If the above examples don’t properly illustrate people using freedom of speech as a defence against hurtful and offensive judgments, one needs to look no further than online comments on news articles.
People feel that their right to freedom of speech allows them the right to say any hurtful, sexist, racist, or judgmental comment online.
It seems that we are all, in general, quick to judge or voice our sometimes extremely hurtful opinions when it’s convenient to us. We find it easy to judge other people’s actions when it benefits our way of thinking and the way that we live our life.
It’s always simple to protect what our own rights when, at the same time, passing judgments on others and infringing on their rights.
Everyone has their convictions that they chose to live by. People have their gods that they pray to. People have their ideas of what happens after death. And people have the right to freedom of speech. But eventually, that freedom to say whatever it is that you believe, even if it is protected in the courts, violates other people’s rights to live the way they choose.
It’s easy to be the majority. It’s easy to say how others should live their lives. It isn’t easy, however, to accept peoples’ beliefs, actions, and life choices when it contradicts your own personal values and ideologies.
The simplistic, and perhaps seemingly naïve, idea that everyone should have the right to be who they are and believe what they want to believe rings truest in these situations.
Despite freedom of speech, people should also have the right to love who they want, to believe in the god that they choose, to not have their funeral picketed, and to live the way that they desire. One of the most important choices that we make is that, despite how much we disagree with others’ choices, we withhold our judgments on them. That we withhold our hate and, perhaps, withhold our right to freedom of speech, if it means that we no longer infringe on others’ right to live the way they choose.