The United State Supreme Court has agreed to hear the case Albert Snyder versus Westboro Church on Wednesday. While the verdict will most likely not be delivered until next year, this is a case that will either redefine free speech or will set in stone the right to free speech even when it is quite offensive and causes another mental hurt.
Westboro Church, and I use that term lightly, is infamous for their constant protest at the funerals of fallen soldiers. They get as close to the funeral as they can and hold signs and chant slogans that contain phrases such as "God hates fags" and "Thank God for dead soldiers." Their reasoning for this type of horrendous behavior is that they believe the United States is an immoral country that panders to and glorifies behavior they deem contradictory to the law of God. But does this justify their behavior and their personal attacks on the families of dead soldiers? But more importantly, is their behavior protected free speech?
For parishioners of the Westboro Baptist Church, Wednesday’s case at the Supreme Court is more than an hour of legal debate over the constitutionality of military funeral protests; it will also mark the end of their "I-70 GodSmack Tour" of protests across the country.
The group’s last picket before they arrive at the court is scheduled to happen earlier in the morning at Arlington National Cemetery.
For many, the idea of protesting at any funeral — let alone one for a member of the military — is abhorrent, yet members of the Westboro Church proudly boast of having held more than 44,000 pickets at funerals and other events. They also strongly defend their First Amendment right to protest.
"This case is about a little church in Topeka, Kansas, engaging in public speech on a public right-of-way, about issues of vital public interest and importance," lawyer Margie Phelps wrote to the court defending the protests. She is also the daughter of church founder Fred Phelps and will argue the case before the justices.
Westboro’s website says the legal dispute is about the "sovereignty of the Living God" and that those who fail to live up to God’s standards should be punished. Phelps explains that their decision to picket funerals "is to use an available public platform, when the living contemplate death, to deliver the message that there is a consequence for sin." That sin in their view is homosexuality and all government policies they think support homosexuals.
Albert Snyder filed a civil lawsuit against this church after they protested the funeral of his son who was killed in action in Iraq. He claims their actions caused him to become violently ill and that his depression became worse as a direct result of their behavior that was intentionally harmful. In the first trial the jury agreed and awarded him almost 11 million in damages.Upon appeal, the verdict was cut in half and under further appeals the entire verdict was set aside with the reasoning being the church was protected by the 1st Ammendment and could not be forced to pay damages.
Snyder filed a lawsuit against Phelps based on the protest and a subsequent post on the Westboro website about his son Matthew.
"[Albert Snyder] became violently ill at the sight of the Phelpses’ website and whose diabetes and depression worsened as a result of the Phelpses’ intentionally harmful conduct," lawyer Sean Summers wrote to the court.
A jury awarded Snyder nearly $11 million in damages for the intentional infliction of emotional distress and invasion of privacy. That award was later cut in half and last year the Fourth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeal set aside the decision in its entirety ruling that the protests were absolutely protected by the First Amendment.
We all know that certain types of speech are not covered under the 1st Ammendment. These types of speech are, but not limited to, yelling fire in a crowded room when there is no fire, liable speech, speech the incites or encourages violence or criminal behavior. But is what the Westboro Church members spew out defined as unprotected speech? This is the million dollar question.
While I am not an attorney, I was sued for words I uttered years ago. A group of people decided that my biblical references to certain lifestyles and actions they participated in were and should be defined as hate speech even though they chose to attend the event which was billed as a religious event. They claimed that even though my speech was accurate according to my set of beliefs, it encouraged others, who would not under normal circumstances believe that way, to take those views and would lead them to discriminate against them and would lead them to act in a violent manner towards them. Their case never made it to trial after being dismissed as frivolous and without merit. But if the Westboro church was to lose and the case against me was to have happened shortly after, would my result have been the same?
My humanity and the decency in me prays that the vile people at that Vile church lose and lose big. I would be the first to praise the heavens if we never again had to hear about their atrocious behavior at another funeral of one of our bravest young men and women. I would be the first in line if a law was passed that stated we could rearrange their faces each time they disrespected one of our finest fallen, but that is my human side coming out.
But when it comes to my rights and the rights of those around me, I detest that I must fall in support with the Westboro church. While I despise every word that comes from their disgusting and vile mouths, I know there are many out there that despise my Christian and political views just as much. While my views do not trash the family of a dead warrior or in fact, do not trash or degrade anyone at all, it is still speech that is sure to anger many who do not have my same convictions or views. No matter how much I hate what they say, I hate our government deciding what we are allowed to say even more. Taking their side concerning the protection of free speech leaves me much in the need of a shower, but it is something I have to do. In fact, it is something all freedom loving people must do as well. I know that my case and this one is different in as much as the people who sued me came to my event knowing what we believed in and what was going to be discussed which invalidated their claims of my speech was encroaching on their rights where the families of the dead do not have a choice as to whether or not these people show up and protest the life and death of their family member, but is that enough to side against free speech.
I guess I do not know where I want to stand on this issue as the fight between my human side and my intellectual side rages on. I also question to some extent if screaming at a dead warriors family even on a public street is free speech and should remain protected. But if I was forced to take a side, I would, with a sick stomach, side with the protection of free speech, even these lowlifes free speech.
Chime in but please stay respectful to each other. Some will side based on their decency and others will side with our rights. At the end of the day, we can only hope and pray that the idiots at the Westboro church find their own humanity and stop what they are doing. But since the chances of that happening are slim to none, maybe the country will get lucky and a large spread out lightening bolt will strike where they stand next ending the discussion and debate for good. But in the meantime, post both your decency argument and your thoughts on is it free speech that must be protected in order to protect our own rights.