Imagine my surprise going to school yesterday and hearing that the Westboro Baptist Church, the group that protested outside our house of worship this last Rosh Hashannah (Shofar Blows), was arguing a case before the Supreme Court today (Phelps v Snyder).
This case started some four years ago when Albert Snyder, was burying his son Cpl. Matthew Snyder, who was killed in Iraq in 2006. Albert Snyder sued this group for “emotional distress” produced by the group’s protesting at his son’s funeral. Snyder claimed that “funerals are private events, and the family should be free from such a demonstration when mourning the loss of a child killed in service to his country.” He was awarded 5 million dollars by the courts which was overturned by a Federal Appeals Court which claimed that the church had followed the rules and limitations set up by the police and other officials and had abided by the distance (1000 feet) they needed to be from where the services were taking place. In other words, the protesters were exercising their free speech rights within the limitations that were set by state laws.
The Supreme Court agreed to take this freedom of speech v individual privacy case, which implies that they may be looking to place new limits on free speech. The Supreme Court usually only takes cases for which they might overturn the appeals court decisions. It decides some 75 cases a year, only 1-2% of the cases that petition to be heard. (In other words, why bother to spend time and resources on cases for which the Supreme Court agrees with the verdict?)
According to the radio report last night, 21 major media outlets, including NPR and the NYT, though finding the viewpoints of this church abhorrent and extreme, support their right to speak their mind. The ACLU and liberal law organizations as well as many conservative organizations concur. Most claim that the most difficult argument is the one made by the father of the dead soldier, Albert Snyder.
Though my heart breaks for Mr. Snyders’s family and the other 200 families who have been exposed to this extremely insensitive, irrational, hateful, and shameful behavior, though I find this group’s ideas despicable and heinous, I can’t see how one can draw a line here without shutting down a lot of other speech.