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In 8-1 Ruling, Supreme Court Upholds Rights Of Bigoted Protesters at Military Funerals

| March 2, 2011

Westboro Baptist Church's road show. (© Jordan Jez)

Westboro Baptist Church's road show. (© Jordan Jez)

Matthew Snyder was a corporal in the Marine Corps. He was killed in traffic accident in Iraq, in a non-combat situation, on March 3, 2006. He was 20. His funeral was scheduled for March 10 in Westminster, Md.

That day, seven members of the Westboro Baptist Church of Topeka, Kansas, picketed the funeral from 1,000 feet away, in compliance with local ordinances and police directives. The protest was not unruly and involved no shouting or verbal profanity. But protesters held up signs that read, “God Hates the USA,” “America is doomed,” “Pope in hell,” “Fag troops,” “Priests rape boys,” “You’re going to hell,” “God hates you,” “Semper fi fags,” and “Thank God for dead soldiers.” The group also picketed the state capitol and Navy sites in Annapolis the same day.

Albert Snyder, father of the late Marine, never saw the signs before or during the funeral, or noticed the picketing. He only saw the protest while watching television news reports later that day. Subsequently, he happened by an “epic” video the church produced, titled “The Burden of Marine Lance Cpl. Matthew Snyder,” in which the corporal is used to illustrated the church’s belief—that God is punishing the United States and the military for tolerating homosexuality. The video accused Albert Snyder of teaching Matthew “to defy his creator” and teaching him that “God was a liar.”

Albert Snyder sued Westboro Baptist Church in federal district court over the picketing and the video, charging intrusion on the funeral and intentional infliction of emotional distress. He won a $10.9 million judgment, including $8 million in punitive damages. The punitive award was reduced to $2.1 million. Westboro Baptist Church appealed. (The church has no more than 70 members, all but 10 or 20 of whom are related to Fred W. Phelps, who founded the church in 1955.)

On Sept. 24, 2009, the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals overturned the judgment in a 3-0 ruling. Snyder appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court. Today, the Supreme Court upheld the 4th circuit’s decision in an 8-1 ruling that strongly endorsed First Amendment protections

“Simply put, the church members had the right to be where they were,” Chief Justice John Roberts wrote for the court. “The record confirms that any distress occasioned by Westboro’s picketing turned on the content and viewpoint of the message conveyed, rather than any interference with the funeral itself. A group of parishioners standing at the very spot where Westboro stood, holding signs that said “God Bless America” and “God Loves You,” would not have been subjected to liability. It was what Westboro said that exposed it to tort damages. Given that Westboro’s speech was at a public place on a matter of public concern, that speech is entitled to ‘special protection’ under the First Amendment. Such speech cannot be restricted simply because it is upsetting or arouses contempt.”

Roberts cited a 1989 opinion on the issue (Texas v. Johnson): “If there is a bedrock principle underlying the First Amendment, it is that the government may not prohibit the expression of an idea simply because society finds the idea itself offensive or disagreeable.” And a 1995 precedent: “[T]he point of all speech protection . . . is to shield just those choices of content that in someone’s eyes are misguided, or even hurtful.” (Hurley v. Irish-American Gay, Lesbian and Bisexual Group of Boston, Inc.)

Roberts concluded: “Westboro believes that America is morally flawed; many Americans might feel the same about Westboro. Westboro’s funeral picketing is certainly hurtful and its contribution to public discourse may be negligible. But Westboro addressed matters of public import on public property, in a peaceful manner, in full compliance with the guidance of local officials.” (Roberts had earlier noted that “the political and moral conduct of the United States and its citizens, the fate of our nation, homosexuality in the military and scandals involving the Catholic clergy,” all of which are the centerpieces of Westboro’s protests, “are matters of public import.”)

Justice Samuel Alito, the lone dissenter, mischaracterized the facts of the case in his summation when he wrote that while Snyder wanted “to bury his son in peace,” the Westboro protesters denied him that right by turning “Matthew’s funeral into a tumultuous media event” and launching “a malevolent verbal attack on Matthew and his family at a time of acute emotional vulnerability.” In fact, the Snyder family did not know about the “tumultuous” protest until after the funeral, which was not disrupted, the protest being 1,000 feet away, small, and, before it was amplified by television coverage, unremarkable.

“In this case,” Alito wrote, Westboro’s protesters “brutally attacked Matthew Snyder, and this attack, which was almost certain to inflict injury, was central to respondents’ well-practiced strategy for attracting public attention.” The justice also rejected the notion that Westboro’s speech was a matter of public concern. “Neither classic ‘fighting words’ nor defamatory statements are immunized when they occur in a public place, and there is no good reason to treat a verbal assault based on the conduct or character of a private figure like Matthew Snyder any differently,” Alito wrote.

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7 Responses for “In 8-1 Ruling, Supreme Court Upholds Rights Of Bigoted Protesters at Military Funerals”

  1. Paul says:

    This site is quickly becoming a one way opinionated news source. Why cant there be a site or paper that just posts the news and that is it. I beleive when you put “….bigoted Protesters….” people already know what side you are on. Of course i dont agree with the protesters in the first place, and they are out of line for the things that they say, but this isn’t about them. Keep the news posts un-biased, we already have fox and cnn for that.

    • Flaglerlive says:

      What side is that Paul? Is it a matter of dispute that the protesters are bigoted? Are you disputing the fact? The bigotry of the protesters is a fact. It’s repulsive. Let’s not quibble about it under a facade of objectivity. It’s also unquestionably defensible: they have as much right to say what they say, and brandish those signs, as anyone brandishing “god bless America” signs. You may not have read the story itself, which is actually on the dull side for being too non-analytical. Either way, maybe FlaglerLive is not for you.

  2. paul says:

    Your right I didn’t read the story, and after having read it have to agree it is non-analytical. The title though caught me off guard. I love flagerlive, just at times seen stories that were more opinions than facts. This wasn’t the case so I retract my last post.

  3. kevin says:

    At first I was deeply upset and concerned knowing the reality that there may be people out there that felt like Paul, the Paul from the first comment. Then he went on to clarify that he made a mistake. For that I am glad, very glad.

    In light of this day being one that has been very depressing and upsetting for me personally, leading to all the things ones does and feels when profoundly upset, for just this moment I laughed, thinking to myself if ever there was a subject that we can all adamantly agree on, it is this group of swine is the lowest of humanity with minds infected with vile, sickening bigotry.

    Time to toggle out again to my previous mindset.

    and place in this world this world a time and place where we can all come together and agree on something it is on the bigotry of those protestors.

  4. NortonSmitty says:

    Hey, Pierre is right Paul. If your going to be so damn reasonable about this schtick, maybe FlaglerLive isn’t for you.

    But seriously, this Westboro group is one of the most vile and reprehensible slime that ever hid their idiotic beliefs behind biblical bullshit. I have Posted before about my experience with the Patriot Riders, a group of Veteran Bikers that ride to the military funerals to stand as a shield between these slugs and the families of the dead. They send little girs about nine or ten down to sing the most disgusting little songs to us, giggling all the while because they didn;t have a clue what the words meant. Their leaders never came close to us. Just stood across the field with satisfied smirks while the women and kids tried to provoke us, just to get more headlines for their fundraising drives. It worked to a point. I had to quit going with them because I was either going to cross that field and go to prison for doing what needed to be done or have a stroke.

    But the Supremes were right on this decision. Once we let the Government stop any speech, you know eventually it will stop all speech. Just like we turned our backs to torture, but of only the most evil terrorist masterminds. The next thing you know we are sending Canadian car salesmen to Bulgaria to be Torquemadaded for months with no repercussions for anyone in our whole bloated system.

    But if you want to start cutting Gov’t spending, a good place to start would be to remove the hundreds of Police sent to Military Funerals to protect these idiots. I guarantee the problem will be taken care of..

  5. John Boy says:

    A very simple answer is to pull the Tax Exempt status of any religious organization that wants to partake in Political Activities. They have not paid the entrance fee (taxes). If they want to be part of the Political System. then pay taes and you can do and say what you waant under the law. This goes not only for this organization but others as well The Catholic Church wants to stop abortions because it’s there doctrine and a source for future victims, concentrate on cleaning up your child abusers.

  6. kevin says:

    John Boy: I realize your brain is stained with some issue involving the catholic church, of which I don’t care why you’re mental about them. My point is they have given hundreds of millions in charity to the needy souls of this world. Go interview those people that have cared for in one way or another because of their charity which comes from its parishioners, learning their thoughts about your unfair and ignorant attacks. When the shit hits the fan, one can count on the church to help a person in need at any time. I challenge any loser willing to speak negatively about that comment, to prove elsewise. That means you John Boy.

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