SCOTUS Takes on Issue of Private Funerals & 1st Amendment Rights
The case of First Amendment Rights and Picketing at private funerals to be examined by the Supreme Court of the United States today.
The case known as Snyder v. Phelps et.al. was upheld by the Fourth District Court, which ruled that the Phelpsian speech was protected by First Amendment rights. The Snyders appealed to the Supreme Court, which is expected to take on the case today.
Phelps and his church initially picketed the funeral of Snyder's son, Marine Corporal Matthew A. Snyder, who had been killed in Iraq. Police kept the protesters some distance from the funeral.
Phelps Church had signs that among other things said, "God Hates the USA", "Matt in Hell", "Semper Fi fags", and "Thank God for Dead Soldiers".
The logic of the Phelps congregation, which is anti-gay, is this:
America is Tolerant to Gays, and the military defends America, therefore the military is evil.
The outcome of this case will have far reaching implications. Where do you draw the line between free speech and hate?
The court will have to decide how far inflammatory speech can be taken. While the church has a right to criticize the military in general, does it have the right to picket and use inflammatory signs at a private funeral?
Americans are quite fickle on First Amendment issues. In Canada we have addressed it with "Hate Legislation". Should there be a limit to free speech, regardless of how hurtful it is to others?
The Supreme Court heard both sides of the issue today, but will not render its decision until 2011.
Here is what both sides of the issue said:
All we wanted to do was bury Matt in a decent, civilized way," an emotional Snyder told reporters on the footsteps of the court after the hearing.
"But the Phelpses' conduct was so extreme, it's beyond the bounds of basic human decency," he added.
The funeral for the fallen marine was a private event that was disrupted by private individuals who had "specifically targeted the Snyder family by name," Sean Summers, Snyder's lawyer, argued.
The US Constitution's first amendment, which grants Americans the right to freedom of speech, had no role to play in the case pitting the Snyder family against the Phelpses, who have disrupted many funerals of US soldiers killed in Iraq and Afghanistan, said Summers.
The Westboro Baptists’ lawyer, Margie Phelps, daughter of church patriarch John Phelps, argued that Snyder had intentionally turned his son’s funeral into a public media event and the protesters had shown up to debate with him and others attending the funeral "on the sins of America and the wages of war."
The First Amendment protected their right to do that, she said.
Margie Phelps told reporters later that publishing an obituary turned a private figure into a public one.