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April 7, 2011

Free Speech and Despicable Acts

Kevin E. Dayhoff

The 800-pound gorilla in the room at the funeral of Marine Staff Sgt. James M. Malachowski was whether or not members of the Westboro Baptist Church were going to be the “uninvited guests” at the solemn occasion.


Well, not to worry, members of the Patriot Guard stood silently on the front sidewalk at the funeral home with a large American flag and at the church for the funeral. I wrote about it at some length in The Carroll Eagle:


“We’ve been here since the hero was brought in from Dover (Air Force Base,) Delaware around 10:30 this morning,” Sandy Hohne, a ride captain with the Patriot Guard, said.


Ms. Hohne went on the to say that she joined the Patriot Guard with the Malachowski family after the funeral for Lance Cpl. Matthew Snyder, a Carroll County native killed in Iraq in March 2006. “This is my 175th mission with the Patriot Guard,” she said. A mission “is a funeral, a welcome home, or a send-off for a member of the military or a firefighter – a first responder. Our mission is to honor the service and protect the family and friends.”


“We have about 1,200 members in the Maryland Chapter of the National Patriot Guard”, she said. The Snyder funeral was picketed by Westboro members. However, riders with the Patriot Guard do not utter the name of the Kansas-based organization. Instead the Westboro demonstrators are simply referred to as “uninvited guests.”


“We’re here no matter the weather,” said Ms. Hohne, as she talked about the “tremendous support” of the community. “We’ve almost never had support like this, except maybe in Frederick County,” she said as she pointed to the car overflowing with food and drinks from the local Hampstead community.


An unidentified Patriot Guard rider quickly added: “Well, we are, after-all, in Carroll County,” as he walked by quickly with a piece of chicken from Dean’s Restaurant.


Although I share the same right to free speech as the members of the Westboro Baptist Church; I work for a local newspaper, Explore Carroll, which covered these unfolding events in my backyard, and I had to keep my thoughts to myself. For more about the U.S. Supreme Court decision in Albert Snyder v. Fred W. Phelps, Sr., and the Westboro Baptist Church, see my column on March 4, “A Victory for Free Speech?”


I worked most of the day on March 2 on our article about that court decision, “Supreme Court rules in favor of Westboro in protest at funeral of Westminster marine – Court says protest at Snyder's funeral was protected free speech,” which may be found here.


I followed the unfolding events rather closely for a number of reasons. Lance Cpl. Snyder graduated from the same high school I did – Westminster High.


His death brought back many bad memories of dear friends lost in another far off land, Vietnam, over 40 years ago. The abuse heaped on the Snyder family by the “uninvited guests” reminded me of the scatological scorn that was bestowed on veterans returning from that conflict.


Of course, the liberal media sanctified the lefts’ rebuke of Vietnam veterans as courageous exhibitions of our cherished right to free speech and valiant efforts of citizens speaking “truth to power.”


I feel dyspepsia to this very day at the phrase, “speaking truth to power.” I served in the Marine Corps and most any news about a Marine captures my immediate attention.


The Snyder funeral occurred just over a mile or so from my house and I have attended many services at St. John’s Catholic Church – and I attended school at the local middle school, just across the street from the church.


In March 2006, my position was to ignore the Westboro Baptist Church protesters and not give them a megaphone for their distorted point of view. Of course, that point of view was a non-starter and a violation of journalistic ethics.


As a newspaper reporter, I feel it is inappropriate to allow myself to make sentimental or agenda-driven judgments as to what is news and what is not – and we should not make news out of what is not a newsworthy event.


I recall vividly when I was an elected official, when one or two citizens and their little dog demonstrated on a few occasions. Reading local press coverage of that activity you would have thought it was the event of the year.


If I had not witnessed the witless demonstrators in action, I would have concluded from the newspaper coverage that an event of Woodstock proportions had occurred in Westminster. For everyone who was able to compare and contrast what they saw with their own eyes and what was reported in the paper, the media lost any high ground of integrity it ever had.


However, in the end, the Westboro picketers were so in-your-face offensive that day and made such a spectacle of themselves, they were rather hard to ignore and our personal feelings were not a material factor in what needed to be reported.


Readers would ask me how I felt and I would bite my lip and share that I needed to keep my opinion to myself and then robotically recite my respect for free speech. Some of those experiences (along with readers’ reactions to some cops, courts, and crime stories I’ve covered over the years) reminded me that you do not go into the newspaper business to win friends.


That said, God Bless the work of the Patriot Guard Riders and all the service and sacrifice of men and women in uniform who have gone before us to ensure that the rights to free speech by the “uninvited guests” are also our rights to shout them down.


…I’m just saying…


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