advertisement

High court rules for military funeral protesters

Wednesday, March 2, 2011 | 11:09 a.m. CST; updated 12:20 p.m. CST, Wednesday, March 2, 2011
In this Oct. 6, 2010, file photo, Margie Phelps, second from right, a daughter of the Rev. Fred Phelps, and the lawyer who argued the case for of the Westboro Baptist Church, of Tokepa Kan., walks from the Supreme Court, in Washington, D.C. The Supreme Court has ruled that the First Amendment protects fundamentalist church members who mount attention-getting, anti-gay protests outside military funerals.

WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court ruled Wednesday that the First Amendment protects fundamentalist church members who mount attention-getting, anti-gay protests outside military funerals.

The court voted 8-1 in favor of the Westboro Baptist Church of Topeka, Kan. The decision upheld an appeals court ruling that threw out a $5 million judgment to the father of a dead Marine who sued church members after they picketed his son's funeral.

Chief Justice John Roberts wrote the opinion for the court. Justice Samuel Alito dissented.

"What Westboro said, in the whole context of how and where it chose to say it, is entitled to 'special protection' under the First Amendment," Roberts wrote, "and that protection cannot be overcome by a jury finding that the picketing was outrageous."

Matthew Snyder died in Iraq in 2006, and his body was returned to the United States for burial. Members of the Westboro Baptist Church, who have picketed military funerals for several years, decided to protest outside the Westminster, Md., church where Snyder's funeral was to be held.

The Rev. Fred Phelps and other family members who make up most of the Westboro Baptist Church have picketed many military funerals in their quest to draw attention to their incendiary view that U.S. deaths in Afghanistan and Iraq are God's punishment for the nation's tolerance of homosexuality.

They showed up with their usual signs, including "Thank God for dead soldiers," ''You're Going to Hell," ''God Hates the USA/Thank God for 9/11" and one that combined the U.S. Marine Corps motto, Semper Fi, with a slur against gay men.

The church members drew counter-demonstrators, as well as media coverage and a heavy police presence to maintain order. The result was a spectacle that led to altering the route of the funeral procession.

Several weeks later, Albert Snyder was surfing the Internet for tributes to his son from other soldiers and strangers when he came upon a poem on the church's website that attacked Matthew's parents for the way they brought up their son.

Soon after, Albert Snyder filed a lawsuit accusing the Phelpses of intentionally inflicting emotional distress. He won $11 million at trial, later reduced by a judge to $5 million.

The federal appeals court in Richmond, Va., threw out the verdict and said the Constitution shielded the church members from liability.

Forty-eight states, 42 U.S. senators and veterans groups sided with Snyder, asking the court to shield funerals from the Phelps family's "psychological terrorism."

While distancing themselves from the church's message, media organizations, including The Associated Press, urged the court to side with the Phelps family because of concerns that a victory for Snyder could erode speech rights.


Like what you see here? Become a member.


Show Me the Errors (What's this?)

Report corrections or additions here. Leave comments below here.

You must be logged in to participate in the Show Me the Errors contest.


Comments

Paul Allaire March 2, 2011 | 11:42 a.m.

Good. I was afraid I was going to run out of people to laugh at. Send them to IRAQ!!!

(Report Comment)
Christopher Foote March 2, 2011 | 12:15 p.m.

Nice to see the first amendment defended by the Supremes. There was a dissent however. It is rather unfortunate that Alito appears to believe that social norms (as defined by social conservatives) should trump what the constitution actually protects.

(Report Comment)
Ted Vaughan March 2, 2011 | 12:16 p.m.

I'm glad to see this ruling from the court. It means that when the rights of the bottom-feeding, gutter-dwelling, human equivalent of roach smegma are protected, yours and mine are even more safe and secure.

(Report Comment)
Michael Williams March 2, 2011 | 5:03 p.m.

Chris: While I agree with the SCOTUS decision, in your condemnation of Alito I presume you have read the dissent. Is that a correct "presumption"?

I'm sympathetic with the following words of the dissent:

"...that the First Amendment does not shield utterances that form “no essential part of any exposition of ideas, and are of such slight social value as a step to truth that any benefit that may be derived from them is clearly outweighed by the social interest in order and morality.” Chaplinsky v. New Hampshire, 315, U. S. 568, 572 (1942); see also Cantwell v. Connecticut, 310, U. S. 296, 310 (1940) (“[P]ersonal abuse is not in any proper sense communication of information or opinion safeguarded by the Constitution”). When grave injury is intentionally inflicted by means of an attack like the one at issue here, the First Amendment should not interfere with recovery.

Also, he wrote as his final paragraph: "...In order to have a society in which public issues can be openly and vigorously debated, it is not necessary to allow the brutalization of innocent victims like petitioner. I therefore respectfully dissent."
_________________________

Both the decision and the dissent are well-written; I hope you read both before basing your conclusions upon "media" interpretations or pre-conceived notions of the way "things should be".

(Report Comment)

Leave a comment

Speak up and join the conversation! Make sure to follow the guidelines outlined below and register with our site. You must be logged in to comment. (Our full comment policy is here.)

  • Don't use obscene, profane or vulgar language.
  • Don't use language that makes personal attacks on fellow commenters or discriminates based on race, religion, gender or ethnicity.
  • Use your real first and last name when registering on the website. It will be published with every comment. (Read why we ask for that here.)
  • Don’t solicit or promote businesses.

We are not able to monitor every comment that comes through. If you see something objectionable, please click the "Report comment" link.

You must be logged in to comment.

Forget your password?

Don't have an account? Register here.

advertisements