Disgraced Ex-Priest on CNN: First Amendment Shouldn't Protect 'Hatred in the Public Forum'

Apparently, someone who broke his vows and trashed his former church is a worthy guest, in CNN's eyes, for a discussion on the Supreme Court, as on Thursday's Newsroom, anchor Don Lemon turned to "Padre Alberto" Cutie for his take on the Court's recent decision in favor of the Westboro Baptist Church. Cutie took issue with the ruling: "I don't think the First Amendment should protect hatred in the public forum, and I think that's where the law makes its biggest mistake....Nobody has the right in the 21st century to propagate hate."

Lemon brought on the Episcopalian pastor, along with CNN senior legal analyst Jeff Toobin and John Ellsworth of Military Families United, for a panel discussion segment 51 minutes into the 2 pm Eastern hour. After asking Ellsworth for his response to the Supreme Court ruling, the anchor raised Westboro's extreme beliefs with Cutie: "So Father, listen, do you consider Westboro- most people don't consider it a legitimate church, okay? But is this- aren't they saying the same thing that's reinforced by religion that's being preached from the pulpit in many churches on Sunday?"

The former Catholic priest included his criticism of current First Amendment interpretation in his answer:

CUTIE: I hope not. I hope nobody is hearing that God hates some people or that even that God hates the activity of some people. I think human beings hate. God teaches us to love and to love unconditionally. That's the problem that I have. I don't think the First Amendment should protect hatred in the public forum, and I think that's where the law makes its biggest mistake. I think we have to be careful when we say to people, oh, by the way, you have the right to do this. Nobody has the right in the 21st century to propagate hate, and that's what's happening here.

Lemon followed up on Cutie's "hate speech" angle with Toobin, who confused the name of the family which brought the suit against Westboro with the name of the main family in the church:

TOOBIN: Well, hate speech is a pretty vague term, but any kind of political view, even the most outrageous, is protected by the First Amendment, and if you look at the circumstances of the Snyder family speech, and, frankly, I prefer to call this so-called church the 'Snyder family' because it's really just one crazy family. It's an insult to Baptists, an insult to churches to talk about the crazy Snyder family as a church. But they were talking about politics. They were expressing their views, horrible though they are, on matters of public concern in a public space that was not disrupting a funeral, and that is at the core of what the First Amendment protects.

Ellsworth corrected the CNN analyst, who apologized profusely for his error:

John Ellsworth, Military Families United; Alberto Cutie, Episcopalian priest; & Don Lemon, CNN Anchor | NewsBusters.orgLEMON: John, did I see you wanting to get in on this?

ELLSWORTH: John wants to get in on this. First of all, it's the Phelps family. The Snyder family-

TOOBIN: Oh, goodness, I'm sorry.

ELLSWORTH: I want to make sure we understand that.

TOOBIN: I apologize! Oh, my goodness.

ELLSWORTH: It is the Phelps family.

TOOBIN: Phelps family-

ELLSWORTH: It is just the Phelps family. As an extended, it's not a church, in my view, as an organization. It's actually protected- file theirselves under a 501(c)(3) to get that tax break. It's not a church. It is, to me, a hate organization, and I have to agree that this is not what God would want. This is not the way that Christians behave. I actually belong to a Baptist church, and I believe in God. This is not the Christian God that I believe in, and I want to make sure that that's clear. Back to the Snyder case, what this- what we are looking for is some distinction, and whether or not it is a- it is free speech, but how far does it go? It's getting to the point of harassment, and we have to be very careful-

LEMON: You know what John? John, let me jump in here, because that's what I wanted to ask Jeffrey. Why isn't this then considered harassment? Because you say whatever you want, but you can't come into my yard or on my street and start screaming or whatever. You would get arrested for either loitering or disrupting [the] public or either for harassment. So, why isn't this considered at least that, Jeffrey?

TOOBIN: Well, let me just repeat my apology that I mixed up the Snyders and the Phelps. It is the Snyders who are the horrible, tragic victims here and the Phelps were the perpetrators. Now, to answer your question, you have to look at what happened at this funeral. This was a protest by the Phelps family, 300 feet from the funeral. It was not disruptive. It did not- it could not be heard at the funeral service. The family, the Snyder family, only found out what was said when they saw the news coverage of the event. So, yes, it might be harassment if they were standing ten feet away and screaming at the Snyder family. But under the facts of this case, when the protest was at a significant distance away and not disruptive, I don't think you can say it was harassment.

Lemon ended the segment with another question for Cutie which revisited the reverend's skepticism of a wide protection for free speech:


LEMON: Listen, I want to ask Father Cutie this. Do you think, Father, maybe it's time to- maybe Jeffrey, you're the best person to answer, but I have to get Father Cutie in here. Do you think it's time, Father, maybe, that we revisit the First Amendment?

CUTIE: We have to revisit it, and we have to ask ourselves the question, what is the difference between free speech and disrespecting other people's basic rights? I think that when you're having a funeral, it is a solemn affair. I don't know why a city or a county would give permission for this type of protest during a funeral. People are denied permits all the time for other kinds of things. Why can't we deny people a permit when we know they may interfere with something that is sacred and holy like a funeral, even if it is 300 feet away? It's wrong!

— Matthew Balan is a news analyst at the Media Research Center. You can follow him on Twitter here.
Matthew Balan
Matthew Balan
Matthew Balan is a news analyst at Media Research Center