Fred Phelps' disciples from Westboro Baptist have announced their intention to picket Elizabeth Edwards' funeral this weekend. (News story here). Edwards was certainly a public figure, and the courts have repeatedly ruled that public figures have little or no recourse to hateful speech since that sort of speech is protected under the First Amendment.
But Steve Shriffen writing at Religious Left Law suggests that there should be legal distinction drawn between speech made in the public arena and speech that is effectively a private attack:
"Suppose, however, that a member of the Edwards family sues for emotional distress. What result? The Westboro Baptist Church has already declared on its website that Edwards was an arrogant witch who is now burning in hell with her son Wade who was killed in an automobile accident when he was sixteen. Falwell makes it clear that the Westboro Church can indulge in vicious lunacy on its website (though the claim about the son might be a different story).
But the First Amendment does not confer the right to speak anywhere at any time. To suppose that the right to spout hate in the media implies a right to inflict emotional distress on grieving mourners at a funeral is to endorse a heartless and foolish privileging of speech over privacy and dignity. We can honor our profound national commitment to robust debate without permitting any such assaults on the emotionally vulnerable."
We certainly forbid certain forms of speech - racist attacks, bullying, abuse and incitement to violence. Is it time to take a stand here?