Albert Snyder says Westboro Baptist Church protesters ruined his
son's funeral. The church says it has a right to free speech. The
justices asked a lot of hypothetical questions about what
constitutes allowable speech.
In a classic battle over free speech in America, the US Supreme
Court on Wednesday took up the case of a grieving father who said
his son's military funeral was tarnished forever by religious
zealots wielding offensive signs and a message of hate.
At issue in the case is whether noxious, fiery speech is
protected by the First Amendment, even when it causes injury to a
family attempting to conduct a dignified and respectful funeral
"What we are talking about is a private funeral," lawyer Sean
Summers told the justices. "I would hope that the First Amendment
wasn't enacted to allow people to disrupt and harass people at
someone else's private funeral."
The protest was carried out by seven members of the Westboro
Baptist Church, which is nationally known for its highly offensive
protests. The Topeka, Kan.-based group believes God is punishing the
United States for its tolerance of gay rights by causing US service
members to die in overseas wars. Church members display signs
proclaiming: "Thank God for Dead Soldiers" and "You're Going to
"The words that were at issue in this case were people from a
church delivering a religious viewpoint, commenting not only on the
broader public issues [but also] about the morals of the nation,"
Westboro's lawyer, Margie Phelps, told the court.
She said those who engage in public discussion of public issues
like the war in Iraq and gay rights are entitled to the protection
of the First Amendment, provided their statements are not false.
The case stems from a March 2006 demonstration conducted outside
the funeral of Matthew Snyder, a US marine killed in Iraq.
The question before the court is whether the Westboro Baptist
Church can be sued for intentional infliction of emotional distress
to Matthew's father, Albert.
What happened at the protest?
Supporters of Albert Snyder argue that the First Amendment should
not shield those who use outrageous words that cause serious injury
Free speech advocates argue that the First Amendment must be
viewed as broad enough to tolerate even highly offensive speech to
protect unpopular minorities from censorship by the majority.
At the Maryland funeral, seven Westboro members stood in a
cordoned-off area about 1,000 feet from the church. They sang songs
and waved their signs.
The protest location was approved by police, and the
demonstrators did not use an amplifier. They conducted their protest
for a half-hour and left 8 minutes after the funeral began.
Albert Snyder was deeply upset by the protest and the subsequent
press coverage of the event. He told reporters that the Westboro
Church's selection of his son's funeral for the protest had ruined
his final moments with Matthew. He hired a lawyer and sued.
A jury awarded Snyder $11 million in damages. The district court
judge reduced the award to $5 million. But a federal appeals court
threw the entire case out, citing protections of the First
Ms. Phelps, daughter of Westboro Pastor Fred Phelps, told the
justices that the group was careful before the protest to follow all
local laws and restrictions. …