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Snyder funeral protest (AP/Dylan Slagle, Carroll County Times)

Protected speech

Supreme Court | The high court rules that Westboro Baptist had the right to protest at a 2006 military funeral

WASHINGTON-The Supreme Court delivered a near unanimous decision Wednesday in favor of Westboro Baptist Church, ruling that the Phelps family-which largely makes up the church-had a right to protest at a slain Marine's funeral.

Albert Snyder, the father of slain Marine Lance Cpl. Matthew Snyder, had sued Westboro for protesting outside his son's funeral in 2006, holding signs like "Matt in hell," and "Thank God for dead soldiers." Westboro, not part of any mainline Baptist denomination, believes the United States is being punished for the sin of homosexuality. It also condemns Catholics and Jews.

Initially Snyder won his case, but the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals overturned the ruling on First Amendment grounds, and ordered Snyder to pay Phelps' legal costs. The Supreme Court affirmed the circuit court ruling 8-1, with Justice Samuel Alito the lone dissenter.

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Chief Justice John Roberts wrote the majority opinion, concluding that under the First Amendment, even despicable speech is protected if it concerns a public matter. "A group of parishioners standing at the very spot where Westboro stood, holding signs that said 'God Bless America' and 'God Loves You,' would not have been subjected to liability," he wrote. "It was what Westboro said that exposed it to tort damages." But Roberts acknowledged that the speech itself was odious: "Westboro believes America is morally flawed; many Americans might feel the same about Westboro."

The opinion noted that the case was decided based on the specific circumstances of Matthew Snyder's funeral, and shouldn't be construed as a broad ruling. Westboro protestors stood on a public sidewalk more than 1,000 feet from the funeral, complying with local laws. Albert Snyder reportedly only saw the tops of the signs at the funeral, and didn't see what they said until afterward, meaning he wasn't a "captive audience," Roberts wrote, a condition for the court to restrict speech.

Alito disagreed. "Our profound national commitment to free and open debate is not a license for the vicious verbal assault that occurred in this case," he said. "Petitioner Albert Snyder is not a public figure. He is simply a parent whose son, Marine Lance Cpl. Matthew Snyder, was killed in Iraq." Alito argued that the First Amendment doesn't allow public attacks on private individuals. Even if Westboro "interspersed" its personal attacks on Matthew Snyder with matters of public concern, that shouldn't give the church immunity, he wrote.

A number of states have laws about protests at funerals, some requiring protestors to keep a certain distance. A number of counter-protests have sprung up across the country to block the Phelps' efforts. Most recently, the Phelps attempted to protest at the funeral of the 9-year-old victim of the shooting in Tucson, Ariz., but members of the community formed a band around the area, and Westboro canceled the protest. But Alito noted in his dissent that the church got what it wanted: "free air time."

The majority ruling acknowledged the "anguish" that the Westboro protestors had added to Albert Snyder's "already incalculable grief."

Emily Belz
Emily Belz

Emily, who has covered everything from political infighting to pet salons for The Indianapolis Star, The Hill, and the New York Daily News, reports for WORLD from New York City. Follow Emily on Twitter @emzleb.

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