Geof Stone: Funerals and Free Speech
The Supreme Court heard argument on Wednesday in the case of Snyder v. Phelps. Fred Phelps is the founder and pastor of the Westboro Baptist Church, a fundamentalist Christian church that contends that God kills soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan as punishment for America's tolerance of homosexuality. In recent years, the church has gained notoriety for staging protests at the funerals of soldiers in order to draw attention to its message.
Lance Corporal Matthew Snyder was a Marine who was killed on March 3, 2006, in Iraq. His body was returned to the United States, and his family held a funeral for him on March 10, 2006, in Westminster, Maryland. Phelps and members of his congregation picketed the funeral, displaying signs bearing virulently anti-gay slogans. One sign, drawing on LCpl. Snyder's status as a Marine, read "Semper Fi Fags." Another depicted two men engaged in anal intercourse. Phelps's message, apparently drawing on the biblical tale of Sodom, is that as long as the United States tolerates homosexuality Americans will suffer the same fate as the residents of Sodom. (There was no suggestion, by the way, that LCpl. Snyder was gay.)
On June 5, 2006, LCpl. Snyder's father filed a lawsuit against Phelps and the Westboro Baptist Church, alleging, among other things, that the defendants were liable for the intentional infliction of emotional distress. After trial, the jury awarded Mr. Snyder damages of $10.9 million. The trial judge reduced the damage award to $5 million. In 2008, a federal court of appeals held that Phelps's speech was protected by the First Amendment and therefore reversed the judgment below.
The central issue before the Supreme Court is whether the court of appeals was correct in ruling that Phelps' speech was protected by the First Amendment, which prohibits government from making any law "abridging the freedom of speech."