The First Amendment and the American Judiciary

The Bill of Rights are the sets of laws that all others are compared and argued against. They are the building blocks of American society and they remain the most debated laws today. The case of the Snyder Family and the members of the Westboro Baptist Church is no different. The case brought before the Supreme Court in October 2010 is rooted in the basic precepts of the First Amendment. The Supreme Court??™s responsibility was to decide to what extent state tort law may impose liability for the case against the Westboro Baptist Church without infringing on the guarantees afforded to them by the First Amendment.
In March 2006, Matthew Snyder was killed in the line of duty in Iraq. His family planned for his funeral some days later. Upon learning of the funeral, members of the Westboro Baptist Church in Topeka, Kansas flew to Massachusetts and protested the funeral carrying signs with statements such as ???God hates the USA,??? ???God hates you,??? ???Fag troops,??? and ???Thank God for dead soldiers.??? It is necessary to note that over the past 20 years Westboro, founded by Fred Phelps has picketed nearly 600 military funerals as to ???communicate its belief that God hates the United States for its tolerance of homosexuality, particularly in America??™s military.??? Westboro??™s picketing also condemns the Catholic Church and its clergy scandal. The protests often occur whether the soldier(s) were gay or not. In response to Westboro??™s activities over the past 20 years, nearly forty states including the federal government have enacted legislation addressing protests and picketing at funerals. On the day of the funeral, Phelps and a handful of his parishioners picketed on public property approximately 1,000 feet away from the church, which was in accordance with local law enforcement directives.
In statements from Albert Snyder, Matthew??™s father, he stated that he saw the protests but was unaware of the subject until watching the news that evening. In light of those events, Snyder successfully sued Phelps and the church for intentional infliction of emotional distress, defamation, and invasion of privacy among others to the tune of approximately $10 million. However on appeal, the US Court of Appeals overturned the judgment because the ???defendants were expressing views on a matter of public concern and did not seriously assert anything provably false about the Snyder??™s or their son.??? In March 2010, the Supreme Court granted Snyder??™s petition for certiorari. Later that year, the Supreme Court upheld the US Court of Appeals decision with eight judges affirming and one judge dissenting.
Because Westboro??™s signs ???plainly relate to broad issues of interest to society??? and that there was no evidence that Westboro??™s protests prevented or interrupted the funeral service, the case for invasion of privacy held no merit. As for defamation, Westboro??™s speech has never changed and the context and nature of their protests remain the same regardless of whose funeral they happen to be protesting. The pickets never mentioned the Snyder family outright. A few days after the funeral an online message was posted on Westboro??™s website that did mention the Snyder??™s by name but Mr. Snyder did not use the ???epic??? as a basis for his case. Interestingly, Justice Breyer who filed the concurring opinion noted that the case might warrant different treatment if Snyder had used the online text as evidence, but as he failed to do so it could not factor into the Court??™s decision.
The sole dissenting opinion came from Justice Alito in which he vigorously denounced the ???vicious verbal assault??? conducted at the protest. He asserted that, in accordance with the First Amendment the church and its parishioners have an almost limitless opportunity to express their views yet the First Amendment does not entirely ???preclude liability for the intentional infliction of emotional distress by means of speech,??? which in his opinion, Phelps??™ church was certainly guilty. Alito concluded that ???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 like petitioner (Snyder).???
The fact is that Westboro Baptist Church peacefully protested on public property and did so in full accordance with the local laws of Westminster, Massachusetts. Their rights to protest and to state their views publicly, however derogatory or incendiary are the precepts of the First Amendment canon. ???Speech is powerful. It can stir people to action, move them to tears of both joy and sorrow.??? It is my firm belief that however insensitive the actions or incendiary the diatribe of Westboro Baptist Church, a censorship of their right to petition, assemble, concurrently with their freedoms of religion and most importantly speech should never be restricted or culled. As Chief Justice Roberts noted in the majority opinion, ???speech on public issues occupies the highest rung of hierarchy if the First Amendment values.??? Speech should be uninhibited and robust especially when issues of public concern are brought to fore. It is the essence of American government and our commitment to self-governance.

Barnes, R. (2011, March 02). Supreme court rules first amendment protects churchs

right to picket funerals .Washington Post. Retrieved from

http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-

dyn/content/story/2010/10/04/ST2010100406679.htmlsid=ST20101004

06679

Liptak, A. (2011, March 02). Justices rule for protests at military funerals. New York

Time. Retrieved from

http://www.nytimes.com/2011/03/03/us/03scotus.html_r=1

Snyder v. Phelps, 580 U.S. 206 (2010)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *