US Supreme Court upholds right to picket military funerals

Friday, March 4, 2011

The United States Supreme Court ruled yesterday that the First Amendment protects the free speech rights of an anti-gay church that pickets the funerals of U.S. soldiers, even if they use hateful and offensive language.

As a nation we have chosen ... to protect even hurtful speech on public issues to ensure that we do not stifle public debate.

Chief Justice John Roberts

In an 8 to 1 decision, the Court upheld a lower court's ruling that struck down an award of US$5 million to a slain soldier's father, Albert Snyder. Snyder had sued Fred Phelps and the Westboro Baptist Church of Topeka, Kansas for picketing the funeral of his son, 20-year-old Marine Lance Cpl. Matthew Snyder who was killed in Iraq in 2006. Snyder said the protest caused him emotional pain and turned his son's funeral into a "circus."

Pastor Fred Phelps

The protest was well publicized, a SWAT team was called, and the funeral procession was diverted away from the protesters, who carried signs such as "Thank God for Dead Soldiers," "God Hates Fags" and "America Is Doomed." The funeral itself was not disturbed and it was carried out on public land, following local laws. Snyder learned of the content of the slogans only later on television.

Snyder's son was not a homosexual. The church pickets military soldiers' funerals because they believe that the United States is too tolerant of homosexuality and that the death of U.S. soldiers is divine retribution. They have picketed more than 600 funerals.

The Court's decision rested in part on the basis that the subject of the church's speech related to controversial public issues and was not a private attack on Snyder. "[The church] conducted its picketing peacefully on matters of public concern at a public place adjacent to a public street," Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. wrote in his opinion for the court. "Such space occupies a special position in terms of First Amendment protection." Roberts said that large number of protests conducted by the church against many groups, including Catholics and Jews, is evidence that Phelps and his church were not personally attacking Snyder, but were "expressing deeply held views on public topics." Roberts wrote, "As a nation we have chosen ... to protect even hurtful speech on public issues to ensure that we do not stifle public debate."

Samuel Alito, the only Justice to rule against the Church wrote that, "Our profound national commitment to free and open debate is not a license for the vicious verbal assault that occurred in this case. In order to have a society in which public issues can be openly and vigorously debated, it is not necessary to allow the brutalization of innocent victims."

Snyder was disappointed in the ruling: "My first thought was eight justices don't have the common sense God gave a goat. We found out today we can no longer bury our dead in this country with dignity."