US Supreme Court to hear arguments over 1st Amendment-Free Speech rights to protest at funerals

Dylan Slagle / Carroll County Times

Republished on MSNBC.COM at:

 updated 10/6/2010 7:12:25 PM ET

 WASHINGTON — The top U.S. court, in a
sensitive test of free-speech protections,
considered on whether a fundamentalist
church had the right to picket at a Marine’s
funeral with signs like “Thank God for Dead

The father of a Marine killed in Iraq is asking
the Supreme Court to reinstate a $5 million
civil verdict against members of the Westboro
Baptist Church of Topeka, Kansas. An appeals
court threw out the fine on the ground that the
First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution
guarantees the right of free speech.

 The Supreme Court justices heard arguments
Wednesday in the emotion-laden case of A
lbert Snyder. His son died in Iraq in 2006,
and members of the Westboro Baptist Church
protested the funeral to make their point that
U.S. deaths in Afghanistan and Iraq are
punishment for Americans’ immorality,
including tolerance of homosexuality and

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg said the question
is whether the First Amendment must tolerate
“exploiting this bereaved family.”

There was no clear answer from the court
during the questioning.

Snyder is asking the court to reinstate the
lower-court verdict’s fine against the
advertisementadvertisement Supreme Court weighs
arguments over ‘Thank God for dead soldiers’
funeral protest Westboro Baptist Church says
war deaths are punishment for U.S. immorality 
Westboro members who held signs outside
the funeral of Lance Cpl. Matthew Snyder,
including ones that read “Thank God for Dead
Soldiers, “You’re Going to Hell” and “God Hates
the USA.” The Marine was killed in a Humvee
accident in 2006.

The church also posted a poem on its website
that attacked Snyder and his ex-wife for the
way they brought up Matthew.

Westboro members, led by the Rev. Fred
Phelps, have picketed many military funerals
to make their point that U.S. deaths in
Afghanistan and Iraq are punishment for
Americans’ immorality, including tolerance of
homosexuality and abortion.

The case pits the right of the father, Albert
Snyder, to grieve privately against the church
members’ right to say what they want, no
matter how offensive.

The members of the small church welcome the
attention the protests have brought, mocking
their critics and vowing not to change their
ways whatever the outcome at the Supreme

“No American should ever be required to
apologize for following his or her conscience,”
said Margie Phelps, a daughter of Fred Phelps
and the lawyer arguing the case for the

Fundamentalist church members turned out in
advance of the argument Wednesday morning
to march in front of the Supreme Court
 building with placards of the type they have
been carrying to military funerals. One young b
oy held up a sign that reads, “God Hates You.”

A line of people trying to get in to hear the
court argument stretched around the corner
of the high court, across the street from the U.
S. Capitol.

 Snyder undertook the lawsuit after the
advertisementadvertisement Art Lien / NBC News
Margie Phelps argues for the Westboro Baptist
Church before the U.S. Supreme Court on
Wednesday, Oct. 6, 2010, in Washington, D.C. 
Phelpses picketed the funeral of his son, Lance
Cpl. Matthew Snyder, in March 2006. The
Marine was killed in a Humvee accident.

Snyder won an $11 million verdict against the
church for intentional infliction of emotional
distress, among other claims. A judge reduced
the award to $5 million before the federal
appeals court in Richmond, Virginia, threw out
the verdict altogether, citing the church’s free
speech rights under the First Amendment.

For Snyder, the case is not about free speech
but harassment. “I had one chance to bury my
son and it was taken from me,” Snyder said.

Forty-eight states, 42 U.S. senators and
veterans groups have sided with Snyder,
asking the court to shield funerals from the
Phelpses “psychological terrorism.”

While distancing themselves from the church’s
message, media organizations, including The
Associated Press, have called on the court to
side with the Phelpses because of concerns
that a victory for Snyder could erode free
speech rights.

 The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Video:  MSNBC Nightly News


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