WASHINGTON-The high court, showing deference to a bereaved father, considered Wednesday whether free speech rights allowed Westboro Baptist Church to protest at a funeral for Lance Cpl. Matthew Snyder, who died in a Humvee accident in Iraq in 2006.
The justices were markedly more aggressive and skeptical toward arguments from Westboro's lawyer than toward the Snyders' attorney during oral arguments Wednesday. Chief Justice John Roberts said the church seemed to be protesting not to participate in public debate but for sheer publicity.
The Rev. Fred Phelps and several members of his family, who make up most of Westboro Baptist (which is not a part of any mainline Baptist denomination) in Topeka, Kan., held up signs outside of Snyder's funeral in Westminster, Md., in 2006 that said things like, "Matt in hell," and "Thank God for dead soldiers." The Phelps' believe that soldiers' deaths are God's judgment on the United States for its immorality. The church has specifically attacked the Snyder family online as well, accusing Matthew's parents of raising him to serve the devil.
Albert Snyder, Matthew's father, sued Phelps for causing emotional distress. He initially won an $11 million award, which a judge later reduced to $5 million. Then the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals overturned that ruling on First Amendment grounds and ordered Snyder to pay Phelps' legal costs. Snyder then appealed to the Supreme Court.
"I had one chance to bury my son and it was taken from me," Snyder told The Associated Press.
"No privacy interest should be allowed based on a mourning bubble," the church wrote in its merit brief.
The justices seemed to want to find a way to protect private, grieving individuals from becoming targets of vilification, without blocking protests in public forums.
The church, represented by Fred Phelps' daughter Margie Phelps, a lawyer, argued that because Snyder had spoken to reporters about his son's death, he was a public figure, so they could protest as part of that "public forum."
Snyder's lawyer, Sean Summers, contended that Snyder was a private figure and should have a legal recourse for attacks leveled specifically against him and his family. This wasn't a public forum, he said, "We're talking about a funeral."
While the justices showed respect and empathy for Snyder's case during oral arguments, the court has tended to issue broad First Amendment protections. Earlier this year it issued an 8-1 ruling overturning laws prohibiting animal cruelty videos because they violated the First Amendment. Roberts, who wrote the opinion, said speech could not be banned simply because it was widely disliked.
A number of media organizations, including The New York Timesand The Associated Press, filed a brief supporting Phelps' First Amendment claims.
Most states already have laws limiting protests at funerals in some fashion.