Protection or Prosecution for Hate Speech?

This month saw the continuation of two high-profile cases exploring the outer limits of speech freedom in the United States and the Netherlands.

In the United States, the U.S. Supreme Court heard oral arguments in Snyder v. Phelps, the case centering on a lawsuit brought by the father of a marine against the Westboro Baptist Church, after the fundamentalist church used his son’s funeral to spread its message that fallen soldiers are punishment for tolerance of homosexuality in the United States.  The central question in the case is whether the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution protects the right of church members, who stood outside the funeral holding signs declaring Thank God for Dead Soldiers and God Hates You, to protest at funerals. According to the church, it has held more than 44,000 such protests over the course of 20 years.

The marine’s father, Albert Snyder, had won an $11 million jury verdict, later reduced to $5 million, against the church after he sued it for invasion of privacy and intentional infliction of emotional distress. That award was thrown out by a federal appeals court, which ruled that the protests were intended as commentary on matters of public concern, rather than as factual commentary about the fallen marine, and thus were protected by the First Amendment.

Though there is some speculation that the Supreme Court may be poised to revise current First Amendment case law, the case has already prompted at least one city with an ordinance barring protests at funerals to consider repealing it. The Court is expected to issue its ruling in the case before its term ends in June.

Meanwhile, in the Netherlands, it remains illegal to insult or incite hatred against a group on the basis of gender, religion, race, or sexuality. Politician Geert Wilders is on trial on charges of inciting hatred and discrimination against Islam. Prosecutors have asked the court to drop similar charges of giving offense to Muslims.  

The case stems from anti-Islam comments Wilders made, calling Islam ‘retarded,’ ‘inherently violent,’ and saying that the Quran should be banned. Wilders, whose Freedman Party recently won 24 seats in the Netherlands’ lower house of parliament, could face up to a year in jail or a fine of €7,600 if convicted.

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