Should Harassing the Families of Dead Soldiers Be Protected Free Speech?

"Thank God for Dead Soldiers."

"God Hates Fags."

"Thank God for 9/11."

Those are just a few of the signs that Fred Phelps and the members of his Kansas Westboro Baptist Church held up high during their protest at the funeral of Marine Lance Corporal Matthew Snyder in 2006. Snyder gave his life for our country in Iraq.

He was only 20 years old when he died.

Offensive speech about Snyder was also posted on the church's website (which has the url not of the church's name, but of "god hates fags") proclaiming that it was the fault of Snyder's parents that he died in Iraq because they'd divorced and their son was a target for God's punishment because of that.

So the question for the Supreme Court is whether those protests and web content are protected free speech or whether it's action aimed toward private citizens that doesn't deserve Constitutional protection.

Snyder's family says he wasn't gay. Phelps has said his church protests military funerals, whether the service people were gay or not, because they believe the military promotes homosexuality in the service. Corporal Snyder's family sued the Westboro Baptist Church for the conduct and won an $11 million dollar judgment against it for intentional infliction of emotional distress. An appeals court reversed that, hence the case landing in the lap of the Supreme Court.

To say this one is a tough legal call is an understatement. It's similar to the idea that most people don't want to see the American flag burned but, like it or not, it's conduct that amounts to constitutionally protected free speech. Will the justices decide the same thing in this case -- that even the most horrible and distasteful speech at a fallen soldier's funeral is protected by the First Amendment?

It's no secret that Kansas pastor Fred Phelps and his church are engaged in these types of protests. They have been for years. The BBC made a movie called The Most Hated Family in America that shows in specific detail the church's conduct that most of us would call hate speech.

In deciding whether the speech or conduct deserves the protection of the Constitution, does it matter whether the protesters were speaking out against the war itself -- which is conduct by the government -- or that the protest was supposedly about the military allowing gays to serve in uniform? And does it matter that the church chose the soldier's private family funeral to mount its protest?

Most of us can probably agree that the conduct by the church members was distasteful and disrespectful to the family, no matter what we think about the underlying issues. Even Bill O'Reilly has come to the defense of the Snyder family.

According to reporters who were in the courtroom for the oral arguments, the Supreme Court justices struggled to find some balance between established First Amendment rights and their apparent distaste for what the Westboro Church did at Corporal Snyder's funeral. Those justices are an inscrutable bunch, though. And it's never wise to predict what they'll do based on any question that gets asked while they're sitting on the bench.

Sometimes I think I'd like to be a Supreme Court justice. But not today. No matter what they decide in this case, it's going to be fodder for political infighting for years to come.


in the news, media, politics, supreme court


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Happy... Happypancake

Even though I don't agree with the church or their methods of displaying their beliefs, freedom of speech should still win.

Beths... Bethsunshine

I think these WBC wack jobs need to be put UNDER the jail for harrassing families at funerals!!! Not only do they protest at soldiers' funerals, they have also protested at the funerals of the dead miners from the Sago mining disaster, and when those Amish girls were killed a few years ago. They are just sick beyond belief. Someone needs to just beat the daylights out of them with their own picket signs.

Dee Elle

Once it was targeted  at an actual person/family (as it was when they chose this funeral), I think that it becomes less a matter of free speech than plain and simple harassment.  This protest was not only designed to bring attention to their "political opinions" (hatespeech), but also to inflict more emotional pain on an already grieving family-why else choose to picket at a funeral?

mindi... mindiemoore

If it's a matter of free speech then just say they have to "protest" soo many blocks away from the funeral and the gravesite. They still have their right to free speech and the family gets to bury their loved one in peace.

Nellyo Nellyo

Im a firm believer in preserving freedom of speech, as well as the multitude of other rights we have as Americans, however, this is harassment in every way.

Pundi... PunditMom

@mindiemoore  My guess is that that's what will happen -- SCOTUS will toss it back to Congress or the states suggesting that they craft such legislation.  Some states already have laws like that

Sean Sweeney

Given that the parishioners are all inbreed family members, it's no surprise that mental illness is at the heart of this rant. Take heart though, I'm sure it won't be long before Reverend Nutbag snaps, takes out his AK47 and offs his entire congregation in a glorious sacrifice for his loving God. In the meantime, the media should turn its attention away from this group. After all, if the media wasn't casting a bright light on these mutants, attendees at the funeral could have silenced the entire bunch in just a few minutes.

alsmu... alsmullins

are those CHILDREN holding those signs??  this makes me sick.  first of all this is harassment. secondly God LOVES everyone he hates no body! i cant believe my eyes.  God even loves those who turn their backs on him.  i cant stand when people spread these lies about Him like that.  and it shouldn't matter who you love or prefer in bed, anyone willing to potentially sacrifice their lives so that we can live the lives we are so lucky to live is a hero in my book.

Phils... PhilsBabyMama

Glad you edited this and took out the "He was gay" statement.  This soldier wasn't gay.  This "church" demonstrates at military funerals, regardless of the soldiers sexual orientation.  They are publicity whores and will use almost any tragedy to get media coverage.  They recently showed up outside my old high school to demonstrate after a high school football player had a heart attack and died at a practice.  They said he was in hell and that his parents were to blame for allowing him to worship football.  What a crock.

These people are disgusting.  I'm not sure if we can legally stop them from doing what they're doing.  As a military wife, I sure wish we could.

Gusan... Gusandruca

Free speech rocks! But my question is this? How did they even get away with their heads? Where were all the neighbors, bystanders, street sweepers, mail men, I think you get the point. Where were all those people who don't tolerate this kind of harrassment? Why didn't someone, anyone, take those signs out of their hands and knock em over the head with them?

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