Thursday, October 10, 2013

When Does Your Right to Expression Infringe on Others Rights?

*** Full disclosure: I hold Christian beliefs. However, I feel that the Westboro Baptist Church does not represent the religion that I believe in or the principles that I follow. ***

This past week, a Westboro Baptist Church group held demonstrations at the Campanile on Tech's campus. Regardless of your religious affiliation, it is generally accepted that the Westboro Baptist Church philosophies are extremist in regards to their particular religion. One topic that comes up often when mentioning them is that they do in fact have freedom of expression through the First Amendment. We also know though that there are exceptions to the breadth of this amendment. Things like yelling fire in a crowded public area and others fall under this because they endanger others and have significant, immediate, and permanent consequences. It can also be said that they infringe on the rights of others through the damage that they can cause.

At what point then do protests that contain offensive and extremist statements violate others’ rights. With laws against disturbing the peace, which can include shouting obscenities with the intention of arousing attention, what qualifies Westboro Baptist Church to put similar hateful words on signs? Is it because it is a relatively large and vocal group?  Is is because they identify with a historically major religion in this country, Or, do people not accept it, but more politely ignore it and move on?

There is no “right” way to interact with a group like this. All interactions will have results and consequences. Any attempt to limit their right to speak and protest will result in a negative situation, but the question can be posed asking if the resulting situation would be worse that it currently is. Unanswered questions are a theme of human rights. It is impossible to create a foolproof system of laws or regulations that lead to equal and fair rights for all, and often times it is because of edge cases like these that reasonable attempts fail.

I agree with the approach of caution that people have taken with WBC groups in the past, and currently I think that the best course of action is to reduce their impact by changing our reactions. If we do not allow their organization to affect us negatively or positively, they have not accomplished their goal and their effect is null. In that way, individuals become determiners of the rights of others and themselves.

This article is drawn from the recent protests of WBC on Tech's campus and articles like this:

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