Supreme Court Weighs Free Speech Limits in Military Funeral Case
Supreme Court Justices in oral arguments Wednesday, expressed some sympathy for the family of a slain Marine whose funeral was protested by an extremist conservative Christian denomination, but appeared unwilling to impose limits of the First Amendment that protects the right to voice unpopular views.
The case, Snyder v. Phelps, involved the funeral of Matth ray bans ew Snyder, a 20 year old Marine killed in the line of duty in Iraq in 2006. News debate over whether the First Amendment protects protests at military funerals.]
The church’s view is that God is punishing the country for its tolerance towards homosexuality. Matthew Snyder was not gay, but the members of Westboro used the funeral as a forum for espousing their views. (Asked outside the high court today how the country should treat homosexuals, Margie Phelps, a lawyer who argued the case on behalf of her father, said that she favored the punishment outlined in the Old Testament book Leviticus, which is death.)
Phelps, who gave a quiet yet firm defense of the First Amendment in the face of stiff questioning by the justices, was less reserved outside the court room. She pushed back against reporters who suggested that Westboro was using private funerals as soapboxes to get attention for their cause. “Note to all,” Phelps responded. “When you have a private funeral, we will not be there. When you have a public funeral and you broadcast to the nation that that dead soldier is a hero and that God is blessing America, we will be there and tell you, ‘God is cursing America.’ It is a curse for your young men and women to be coming home in body bags. And if you want that to stop, stop sinning.”
[See a slide show of the Supreme Court Justices.]
Phelps had contended to the court that the publication of Snyder’s obituary and funeral arrangements in a local newspaper made the family’s private ceremony into a public event, and thus a target for the Westboro demonstration.
In addition to the demonstration at the Snyder funeral, the group posted a lengthy written diatribe on their Web site targeting Matthew Snyder by name and blaming his parents’ divorce for his death.
Sean Summers, the lawyer representing the father of the slain Marine, Albert Snyder, argued that the Westboro group was not only infringing on Snyder’s right to mourn in private, but also abusing the constitutional protections of the freedom of speech. “I would hope that the First Amendment wasn’t written to protect the right to disrupt a private funeral,” Summers told the justices.
A jury awarded Snyder $10 million in damages for intentional infliction of emotional dis ray bans tress, though a judge later cut that award in half. An appellate court later reversed the decision on free speech grounds.
For their part, the justices seemed worried about what future implications a ruling limiting a small r ray bans eligious group’s freedom to express obscure scriptural interpretations might have for, say, opposition to a war. Several times during oral arguments, the justices invoked a hypothetical anti war demonstration and how any ruling in the Snyder case could impact such political speech. Th ray bans e justices themselves gave no indication on how they would rule in the case, but as one of the most closely watched entries on the high court’s docket this term, their decision will be highly anticipated.
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