Those who trespass against us
This fall, the Supreme Court will take up a case involving anti-gay demonstrators who travel around the country ruining military funerals with inflammatory messages. If you find yourself interested in following this case’s complexities, I urge you to keep in mind one important principle: property rights.
The case is called Snyder v. Phelps. Albert Snyder’s only son, Matthew, was a marine who was killed in Iraq. Matthew’s funeral was held at St. John’s Catholic Church in Westminster, Maryland. On the day of the event, protestors from the Westboro Church positioned themselves at the main entrance to the church property. In response, the funeral procession was moved to an alternate entrance—but still the demonstrators were only 200 to 300 feet away. They carried signs saying “Thank God for Dead Soldiers,” “You’re Going to Hell,” and “God Hates You.” One held a picture of two males engaged in anal sexual intercourse. (The demonstrators’ motives in all this are a mystical mish-mash unworthy of serious consideration.)
As this case progresses, here’s the question I’d like you to think about: How were the protestors able to get close enough for their signs to be easily legible—close enough so that family members with their eyes open had no choice but to see those ugly signs on a day of mourning? The answer, I suggest, lies in that familiar institution known as “public property.” We take it for granted that streets and sidewalks are, and must be, publicly owned. But look where that leads: Any taxpayer can claim a right to use them as an owner. So, the Westboro Church picketers can self-righteously proclaim to the Supreme Court that they were just exercising their First Amendment rights to speak on public property. If it happened to destroy the solemnity of a funeral, that’s the family’s tough luck.
Now consider how this kind of situation could be completely avoided in a society where all property is privately owned—the fully capitalist society envisioned by Ayn Rand and most closely approximated in nineteenth century America. In such an ideal society, there would be no public streets or sidewalks. I know, it sounds impossible. But in fact, private property is practical, in streets and sidewalks no less than cars and houses, and it’s been proven so whenever it’s been tried.
But even if you’re not fully convinced, stay with me on the Westboro Church case. In a society of private property, no church or funeral home would have to be bordered by land on which creatures such as the Westboro Church demonstrators had a legal right of access. Instead, every such church or funeral home would be surrounded by private property (including private streets and sidewalks), whose owners would have full legal rights to exclude such obnoxious displays as the ones at issue here. Through contracts arrived at voluntarily, a church and its surrounding property owners could agree to forbid any such interference as happened to the Snyder family.
In a private property regime, the Westboro Church demonstrators could be rendered powerless to spoil anyone’s funeral. If such demonstrators showed up on private property, the police could be called to arrest them for trespass and haul them away to jail. And that, in a case like this, would be sweet justice.