Why Supreme Court Case on Westboro Baptist Church Matters

Can the extremist church really protest veteran funerals?

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The Supreme Court will hear the case of Snyder v. Phelps, which will decide whether Fred Phelps's Westboro Baptist Church had the right to protest near the funeral of Albert Snyder's son. The controversial church, known for its raucously offensive protests marked by signs reading "God Hates Fags," has come to target the funerals of veterans. (They claim God kills U.S. soldiers as punishment for gay Americans.) One such protest targeted Matthew Snyder of Maryland, who was killed in Iraq. Phelps insists that his group's speech is protected, while Albert Snyder contends that he is owed damages for "the intentional infliction of emotional distress." Here's why the case matters.

  • 'Distress' vs. Free Speech  UPI's Harriet Robbins Ost warns, "it's possible the speech-related practices of an obnoxious group will be curbed -- but at the price of some new First Amendment fetters." She says the case asks "Whether the freedom of speech guaranteed by the First Amendment trumps its freedom of religion and peaceful assembly clauses."
  • Uphill Battle for Snyder  The Washington Post's Robert Barnes writes, "Despite the political firepower, First Amendment specialists think Albert Snyder has a difficult case to prove to a court that has been particularly outspoken on government attempts to regulate speech and has accepted two privacy cases for the term that begins in the fall. George Washington University law professor Daniel J. Solove, the author of 'Understanding Privacy,' said he finds it 'perplexing' that the justices took the case. The message of Phelps and his followers is 'stupid and obnoxious,' Solove said, 'but seems to fit squarely into the kind of unpopular speech that the Constitution protects.'"
  • Could Have 'Huge Effect' on Free Speech Law   University of Missouri law professor and first amendment expert Christina Wells warns the ruling could be much broader than just the details of the immediate case. "This case has huge implications for where the court is going with the ‘right to privacy in public spaces’ and the ‘captive audience’ doctrines, which have been a big problem for the Supreme Court. I don’t know what they will decide, but regardless of how the court rules, it will have a huge effect." Well adds, "The court may reach a decision that interprets the law more broadly and less in line with free speech precedents than one would hope. This is a case about whether or not the court can see beyond the content of Phelps’ speech when applying its existing laws."
  • Politicians Nationwide Champion Case  McClatchy's Mike Doyle reports, "Politicians used the onset of Memorial Day weekend to side with the sentimental favorite in the upcoming Supreme Court case Snyder v. Phelps. ... On Friday, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid joined other veteran-loving lawmakers in filing an amicus brief in the high-profile case. ... Siding with the Snyder family becomes a proxy for being a supporter of veterans. That is to say, it's more a political statement than a weighing of constitutional values."
  • 48 States File on Behalf of Snyder  The Associated Press reports, "Forty-eight states and the District of Columbia have submitted a brief to the Supreme Court in support of a father who sued anti-gay protesters over their demonstration at the 2006 funeral of his son, a Marine killed in Iraq. Only Virginia and Maine declined to sign the brief by the Kansas attorney general."
  • Bill O'Reilly: I'll Pay Snyder's Legal Bill  Fox News Host Bill O'Reilly declared in March, "Mr. Snyder won in the beginning and then lost on appeal, and incredibly, the court has ordered him to pay more than $16,000 in court costs to the Westboro people. That is an outrage, and I will pay Mr. Snyder's obligation. I am not going to let this injustice stand. ... Mr. Snyder is fighting a good fight, and he is taking his case to the Supreme Court. We are behind him 100 percent."
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.