Snyder v. Phelps: Will Misguided Patriotism Destroy Free Speech?

Tuesday, July 20, 2010
By Paul Martin

By John W. Whitehead

The U.S. Supreme Court will soon hear the case of Snyder v. Phelps, a case that tests the limits of the First Amendment’s protections for free speech. At issue in the case is whether members of the Kansas-based Westboro Baptist Church, which was established by Fred Phelps in 1955, have a First Amendment right to air their opposition to policies and laws condoning homosexuality by staging peaceful protests in public during military funerals. However, what this case is really about, and what few people are talking about, is the extent to which war values have seeped into American culture.

The case arose after members of Westboro Baptist Church picketed the Maryland funeral of Matthew Snyder, a Marine who was killed in combat in Iraq on March 3, 2006. As part of their protests, church members held up signs during Snyder’s funeral which stated, among other things, “God Hates the USA/Thank God for 9/11,” “Fag Troops,” “Priests Rape Boys,” and “Thank God for Dead Soldiers.” Matthew’s father, Albert, subsequently sued Westboro for demonstrating 1000 feet away from his son’s military funeral and was awarded more than $10 million in damages. That amount was later thrown out by a federal appeals court, which ruled that as distasteful as Westboro’s rhetoric might be, it constituted protected speech that focused on issues of national debate. Now it’s up to the Supreme Court to determine whether the privacy rights of grieving families trumps the free speech rights of demonstrators.

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