Editorial: Supreme Court will address picketing of soldiers’ funeralsPublished 4:48pm Sunday, October 3, 2010
An epic First Amendment battle reaches the Supreme Court Oct. 6.
At issue is what the First Amendment protects.
The free speech of Fred Phelps, 80, founder of the hate-filled Westboro Baptist Church in Topeko, Kan.?
He and his followers flew more than 1,000 miles to picket a soldier’s funeral with signs like “Thank God for 9/11” and, in the hands of a 13-year-old girl with a blonde ponytail, “Thank God for dead soldiers.”
Or Albert Snyder’s rights to peaceful assembly and freedom of religion.
The York, Pa., man rerouted his son’s funeral procession with 1,200 mourners at a church in Westminster, Md., to try to avoid seven strangers with their “God hates fags” signs — even though Lance Cpl. Matthew Snyder, 20, killed in Iraq and laid to rest in March 2006, wasn’t gay.
Doesn’t matter to this bunch. They stage protests at military funerals around the country out of the belief God is punishing troops for America’s tolerance of homosexuality.
To those of us shocked by such callous behavior in the name of Christianity, this decision might seem like a slam dunk, but it’s not. Far from it.
It’s still raw and painful to Snyder more than four years later.
“To me, what they did was just as bad, if not worse, than if they had taken a gun and shot me. At least the wound would have healed.”
Phelps, who earned an appointment to West Point in 1946, but skipped the Army. His church is not only anti-gay, but anti-Catholic because priests are pedophiles and anti-Semitic because Jews killed Jesus. Eleven of his 13 children have law degrees, which certainly helped them calculate military funerals to desecrate death like it’s a sports contest.
In October 2007, a federal jury found Westboro members liable for intentional infliction of emotional distress, invasion of privacy and civil conspiracy against Snyder $10.9 million in damages, which the judge reduced to $5 million.
But in September 2009, the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals overturned that verdict, citing free-speech protections for protesters.
The appellate court further fueled public outrage by ordering Snyder to foot $16,510 for Phelpses’ legal fees. Bill O’Reilly offered to pick up the tab. Donations — many from veterans groups — more than covered it.
Attorneys general in 48 states and the District of Columbia — all but Maine and Virginia — sided with Snyder. Their amicus brief noted “a war is a matter of public concern, but that does not give the Phelpses license to attack personally every soldier and every soldier’s family.”
Forty-two senators — a rare occasion where Harry Reid and Mitch McConnell could agree — filed a brief on Snyder’s behalf, arguing that the Fourth Circuit erred in overturning the verdict with the broader standard for defamation claims against public figures, when Snyder is a private citizen.
However, the ACLU, predictably supports Westboro’s right to be offensive, joined unbelievably by many news organizations. Whatever happened to the notion that you can’t shout “Fire!” in a theater because the First Amendment should not protect people intentionally inciting violence or panic?
The AGs got it right when they called it “psychological terrorism,” and we don’t think the First Amendment should be expected to protect that.