On October 6, the U.S. Supreme Court addressed the issue of whether the First Amendment protects a radical religious group protesting the funeral of a fallen U.S. Marine, saying that God strikes down our troops in battle because of America’s laws tolerating homosexuals. The case is Snyder v. Phelps.
There is a small extremist religious sect in Kansas called the Westboro Baptist Church. It’s led by a man named Fred Phelps. They travel across the country to protest at the funerals of American servicemen killed in Iraq or Afghanistan, holding up noxious signs such as “Thank God for Dead Soldiers,” “You’re Going to Hell” and “God Hates You,” directing them against fallen soldiers and their families.
Matt Snyder is a U.S. Marine who died fighting for America in Al Anbar Province, Iraq. Phelps led his Westboro crowd to protest Matt’s funeral, several hundred feet away from the church service in a police-supervised area. They also did a web video talking about how Matt had died because America is too nice to homosexuals.
Although Matt’s father, Albert Snyder, was not directly confronted with these actual displays, he saw media coverage of the Phelpses protest, and then he found the video on the web.
Snyder sued, and in federal district court in Maryland he won a large monetary judgment against Westboro Baptist Church for intentional infliction of emotional distress (IIED) and invasion of privacy. Then the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit reversed, writing that although they found the Phelpses’ beliefs repugnant and their actions reprehensible, that their speech was nonetheless protected by the Free Speech Clause of the First Amendment.
It’s hard to tell from the arguments in the briefs and the lawyers’ performances at the Supreme Court which way this case will go.
Snyder’s lawyer was clearly in over his head, though he gave it a spirited effort. He tried to portray this case as a private family conducting a private funeral.
Several of the justices tried to help Snyder’s lawyer, and it occasionally helped. For example, when the question of whether the signs saying “You’re going to Hell” at the funeral were generic signs for society, versus those directed at the deceased Marine (because if the signs were just against society they would be protected as political speech), Justice Alito asked, couldn’t watching the web video where Phelps explains that they’re focusing on Matt Snyder, “shed light on what ‘you’ meant in these signs?” The lawyer replied, “Correct, and that’s where I was going to go with that, Justice Alito.”