What Supreme Court Justices Asked at Westboro Baptist Church Hearing

By Richey, Warren | The Christian Science Monitor, October 6, 2010 | Go to article overview

What Supreme Court Justices Asked at Westboro Baptist Church Hearing


Richey, Warren, The Christian Science Monitor


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 service.

"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 Hell."

"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 to others.

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 Amendment.

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. …

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