Despite free-speech concerns, Supreme Court justices sounded sympathetic Wednesday to a lawsuit filed by the father of a Marine killed in Iraq whose funeral was picketed by protesters with signs like, “Thank God for IEDs.”
The justices appeared inclined to set a limit to freedom of speech when ordinary citizens are targeted with especially personal and hurtful attacks. The 1st Amendment says the government may not restrict free speech, but it is less clear when it shields speakers from private lawsuits.
The Phelps family from Topeka, Kan., has picketed at military funerals across the nation and proclaimed that God is punishing America and its troops because of its tolerance of homosexuality.
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In 2006, family members traveled to Maryland, where they held antiwar and anti-gay signs at the funeral of Marine Lance Cpl. Matthew Snyder, and they also put on their website a message that accused his father, Albert Snyder, of having raised his son “to defy the creator” and “serve the devil.”
Justices Anthony M. Kennedy and Stephen G. Breyer, usual defenders of the 1st Amendment, said they thought people could be sued for outrageous personal attacks.
Kennedy said “certain harassing conduct” was not always protected as free speech. “Torts and crimes are committed with words all the time,” he said, referring to legal wrongs that result in lawsuits. “The 1st Amendment doesn’t stop state tort law in appropriate circumstances,” Breyer added.
Though the case is about funeral protests, Breyer said the court’s ruling will have an effect on the Internet, because it tests whether vicious personal attacks — often made by bloggers — can lead to lawsuits.
Snyder sued the Phelps family under a common provision of state law that permits claims for an intentional infliction of emotional distress.
It will be several months before the court makes a ruling in the case.
Top US Court hears free speech claim by anti-gay church
The US Supreme Court weighed whether an anti-gay religious group that pickets military funerals with signs that read “Thank God for dead soldiers” is exercising its right to free speech or invading a grieving family’s privacy.
With large crowds gathered outside, the nine justices heard arguments from a lawyer for the Kansas-based Westboro Baptist Church, who said the case was about free speech, and a lawyer for the father of 20-year-old Marine Lance Corporal Matthew Snyder, who was killed in Iraq and whose funeral was picketed by members of the church.
Snyder’s funeral in 2006 was a private event that was disrupted by private individuals who had “specifically targeted the Snyder family by name,” argued Sean Summers, lawyer for the father of the fallen Marine.
Summers said the US Constitution’s first amendment, which guarantees Americans the right to free speech, had no role to play in the case pitting the Snyder family against Westboro Baptist church, who have disrupted many funerals of US soldiers killed in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The Westboro Baptists’ lawyer, Margie Phelps, daughter of church patriarch John Phelps, argued that Snyder had intentionally turned his son’s funeral into a public media event and the protesters had shown up to debate with him and others attending the funeral “on the sins of America and the wages of war.”
The First Amendment protected their right to do that, she said.
Margie Phelps told reporters later that publishing an obituary turned a private figure into a public one, and their funeral into a public event.
The church to which she belongs believes that soldiers’ deaths are God’s punishment on the United States because the country tolerates homosexuality.
“All we wanted to do was bury Matt in a decent, civilized way,” an emotional Albert Snyder told reporters on the steps of the court after the hearing.
“But the Phelpses’ conduct was so extreme, it’s beyond the bounds of basic human decency,” he added.
The case is Snyder v. Phelps
Man ordered to pay court costs for hate group that protested at his son’s funeral
Court considers Westboro Baptist Church’s anti-gay protests at military funerals
The Supreme Court seemed to have trouble putting aside the ugliness of the message to focus on the rights of the messenger Wednesday, as justices tried to balance free speech against the privacy owed a grieving family burying a son.
With protesters on the marble plaza outside a packed courtroom, the justices considered the case of the Westboro Baptist Church of Topeka, Kan., whose anti-gay demonstrations have targeted the military funerals of troops killed in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The church – which is composed almost entirely of the family members of its founder, the Rev. Fred W. Phelps – contends that the deaths are God’s revenge for the country’s tolerance of homosexuality. Albert Snyder – the father of Matthew Snyder, 20, a Marine whose funeral was one of hundreds the group picketed – sued.
Most First Amendment experts said before the argument that they expected the court to make a straightforward, if distasteful, ruling that even vile public speech is protected by the First Amendment. If that is what the justices decide, though, it appeared from the oral arguments that it would not come without some angst.
Nearly all of the justices referred to the group’s noxious practices; a sampling of the signs carried at Snyder’s March 2006 funeral at St. John’s Catholic Church in Westminster, Md., included “God Hates the USA/Thank God for 9/11,” “Semper Fi Fags,” “Thank God for Dead Soldiers” and “Priests Rape Boys.”
Snyder sued Phelps and argued at trial that the Phelpses had invaded his privacy, caused emotional distress, and violated his rights to free exercise of religion and peaceful assembly.
A Baltimore jury awarded Snyder more than $10 million, which was cut in half by the judge and then overturned by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit in Richmond. A three-judge panel said that although the rhetoric used was offensive, it was protected as speech concerning issues in the national debate.
Justice Sonia Sotomayor asked whether court precedents would allow that “speech on a public matter should be treated differently depending on the recipient of the speech” – whether it made a difference if Snyder was a public personality rather than a private figure. But Summers’s list of cases did not seem to satisfy her.
Justices Antonin Scalia and Stephen G. Breyer focused on Phelps-Roper’s Web site message, which condemned Albert Snyder for, in her words, raising his son “for the devil.”
Breyer wondered if there were a “rule” the court could come up with to establish what kind of Internet content would be allowed if it were to cause intentional infliction of emotional distress.
“Maybe this is impossible, this task,” he later concluded.
Westboro attorney unflappable in Supreme Court arguments
Attorney Margie J. Phelps held her fire and brimstone Wednesday until she was safely outside the Supreme Court chambers.
Then she let loose.
“Your destruction is imminent,” Phelps told more than 100 journalists assembled on the court steps. “And when it comes, don’t stand there and say the servants of God didn’t warn you.”
Phelps had just finished an hourlong oral argument in the free speech case Snyder v. Westboro Baptist Church. She is the daughter of the church’s founder, Fred Phelps, as well as its main legal advocate.
Inside the Supreme Court, stiff questioning from the justices hadn’t flustered Phelps. In her first appearance before the high court, Phelps commanded both the facts and the law. More than one close court observer confided that she out-performed her opponent, attorney Sean E. Summers.
Only once or twice during the oral argument did Phelps hint at the fiery nature of her ideology, as when she told justices that “our answer is that you have got to stop sinning if you want this trauma to stop.”
Outside the court, during the traditional post-argument news conference, Phelps let her voice grow ever more steely. Her volume rose as she spoke beneath gray skies.
“God is cursing America,” Phelps told reporters. “He’s opening up his armory. Every death is in God’s hands, and he’s just getting warmed up.”
Editorial: Lamentable Speech
To the American Nazi Party, Hustler Magazine, and other odious figures in Supreme Court history, add the Rev. Fred Phelps Sr. and the members of the Westboro Baptist Church in Topeka, Kan. Their antigay protests at the funeral of a soldier slain in Iraq were deeply repugnant but protected by the First Amendment.
ll of the sympathy in the case of Snyder v. Phelps, which was argued on Wednesday at the Supreme Court, goes to the family of Lance Cpl. Matthew Snyder, the fallen Marine. But as the appeals court in the case observed, using words of Justice Felix Frankfurter, “It is a fair summary of history to say that the safeguards of liberty have often been forged in controversies involving not very nice people.” That happened when the court protected Hustler’s right to mock the Rev. Jerry Falwell and the right of American Nazis to march in Skokie, Ill.
The justices were interested in the lawyers’ views about where his or her argument got fuzzy and made their questions more difficult by asking the lawyers to grapple each other’s contentions. Hovering over the oral arguments were briefs from friends of the court.
Walter Dellinger, a former acting solicitor general, sided with the Snyders for Senator Harry Reid, the majority leader, and Senator Mitch McConnell, the minority leader, and many others in Congress. They argue that Congress and 46 states have passed laws limiting protests at funerals and, implicitly, that the support for the family was a heartfelt exception to the breakdown in Washington. Nadine Strossen, a former leader of the American Civil Liberties Union, pointed out the chilling consequences for protest-filled university campuses if the church’s position is not upheld.
One friend of the court brief called the protesters’ message “uncommonly contemptible.” True, but it is in the interest of the nation that strong language about large issues be protected, even when it is hard to do so.
Supreme Court torn over case of anti-gay church protest at soldier’s funeral
Supreme Court justices seemed troubled and divided Wednesday as they questioned whether a small Kansas church could be punished for mounting an anti-gay protest outside a military funeral.
The high court didn’t tip its hand during oral arguments in the case that pits the Westboro Baptist Church, whose members believe the deaths of soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan are God’s way of punishing the U.S. for tolerating homosexuality, against a grieving Pennsylvania father.
Several justices did, however, hint that the 2006 funeral protest was lawful even if it was obnoxious.
“Didn’t they stand where the police told them to?” Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg said, adding that the protest “was with the knowledge and permission of the police.”
To illustrate the case’s difficulty, however, Ginsburg later questioned whether the First Amendment should “tolerate” what she termed “exploiting a private person’s grief” for the purpose of getting attention.