Abstract

On March 2, 2011, the U.S. Supreme Court determined in Snyder v. Phelps that protests by members of Westboro Baptist Church, a small group of religious fundamentalists committed to communicating their beliefs publicly in spectacular fashion, were protected under the First Amendment based on a dual standard of “public concern”; that is, their speech dealt with sociopolitical issues and their speech attracted media attention. This rhetorical conflation of sociopolitical issues with subjects of media interest provides legal encouragement for the creation of media spectacles on the part of hate groups and other ideologues and discourages the development of the very public reason taken for granted by the Court. To defend this claim, we first provide a brief history of the Westboro Baptist Church and its strategic manipulation of the mass media and free speech law, situated within competing traditions of public sphere theory. After next providing a history of the judicial evolution of Snyder v. Phelps, we engage in a close reading of the majority and dissenting Supreme Court opinions to reveal the rhetorical conflation of “public issues” and “public concern,” and we conclude with reflections on the relationships among that conflation, the role of different forms of spectacle in advanced capitalist societies, and the possibilities for more informed democratic citizenship.

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