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Westboro Baptist goes to Washington

by Brad A. Greenberg

October 6, 2010 | 9:37 pm

 

Giving Christians a bad name—that’s Fred Phelps’ profession.

He and his hateful flock at Westboro Baptist Church get the occasional mention on this blog (and over at GetReligion). And today the Supreme Court of the United States heard Westboro’s case for protesting at the funerals of soldiers, like the one pictured here. The question before the court centers on just what kind of speech, and where, is protected by the First Amendment.

Is holding up a sign that says “Thank God for IEDs” more like shouting “Fire!” in a crowded theater or like walking around the LA courthouse with the words “F—k the Draft” on your jacket?

The case, Snyder v. Phelps, involves a lawsuit brought by the father of a Marine killed in Iraq. Phelps’ folks not only picketed Lance Cpl. Matthew Snyder’s funeral but also directed online attacks at his memory. Though Westboro contacted police ahead of time and its picketers remained in their approved protesting area 1,000 feet from the funeral, Snyder’s father won a $5 million judgment at trial. The appellate court tossed the judgment, citing free speech.

Now the Supreme Court will resolve whether Westboro’s speech was protected or not. Nina Totenberg has a healthy recap of today’s hearing; this portion jumped out at me:

Justice Stephen Breyer noted that Snyder had not seen the picketers’ signs at the funeral, that he only saw the signs when he viewed TV coverage afterward. So, the justice asked, where do we draw the line on when you can sue for damages, and when you can’t? It was a refrain heard repeatedly throughout the argument.

Summers repeatedly contended that the private, targeted nature of the speech is what makes it unprotected by the First Amendment.

But Chief Justice John Roberts wondered obliquely whether it was the content of the speech that was objectionable. “So you have no objection to a sign that said get out of Iraq?” Summers replied that he indeed would have no objection to such signs carried by picketers at a funeral.

Justice Scalia pounced on that answer, observing, “So the intrusion upon the privacy of the funeral isn’t really what you are complaining about.”

Justice Sonia Sotomayor moved back to the line-drawing dilemma asking: If you were a Marine and I went up to you, objecting to the Iraq war, and I said that “you are perpetuating the horrors” of that war, would the Marine have grounds to sue?

Summers first said yes, then no.

The correct answer is no. It may be uncivil, certainly unpopular, but it’s not grounds for a lawsuit.

Personally, I deplore—actually, I hate—Westboro Baptist’s M.O. and what the group stands for. They call themselves Christians, and I’m not one to judge the heart, but we’re not praying to the same God.

Still, sickening as their tactics are, I feel in my heart and in my head that they have the right to be a bunch of jerks.

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