Readers will remember the unconscionable appearances by members of a so-called religious group from the Westboro Baptist Church in Topeka, Kansas, at military funerals claiming that the deaths of our troops in Iraq and Afghanistan are God’s punishment for America’s acceptance of homosexuality. They show up at military funerals regardless of whether the fallen hero was gay or not.
They appear at funerals of our heroes carrying signs proclaiming “God Hates the USA/Thank God for 9/11,” “America is Doomed,” “Fag Troops,” “You’re Going to Hell,” “God Hates You,” “Semper Fi Fags,” “Thank God for Dead Soldiers,” and “Thank God for IEDs,” the latter a reference to the roadside bombs that have killed so many of our troops in Iraq and Afghanistan.
One of the most despicable appearances by this group occurred in March 2006 during the funeral of Marine Lance Cpl. Matthew Snyder, of Finksburg, Maryland, who died in Iraq on March 3 of that year. In addition to spewing their usual hate-filled ideology, they also distributed fliers with young Matthew’s picture and the words “Burial of an Ass.”
Following that infamous event, Matthew Snyder’s father, Albert Snyder, filed a suit against the group’s leader, Reverend Fred Phelps, Sr., winning a lower court decision only to have it thrown out last September by the 4th U.S. Court Circuit of Appeals.
The case made its way all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court.
My view was—and is—that, of course, the First Amendment is one of our most cherished and inviolable constitutional rights. That, of course, all Americans, including Rev. Phelps and members of his Westboro Baptist Church, have the right to free, irreverent, even hateful speech. That many of us have served in part to protect the rights enshrined in our First Amendment. Ironically, Marine Lance Cpl. Matthew Snyder — whose memory and whose parents’ precious right to mourn his death with dignity were so obscenely violated — died doing so.
But my view also is that our rights carry obligations and responsibilities. Most reasonable people do not believe that our free speech rights are diminished or infringed upon when those who misuse them to maliciously and falsely defame others, to publish child pornography and other obscenity, or to falsely yell “Fire!” in a crowded theater, are held legally responsible for such abuses. Using free speech to intentionally and maliciously inflict pain, harm and emotional distress on others, should also have legal consequences.
In this particular case, the right to grieve and to pay our last respects to our departed loved ones with dignity and in privacy; the right to entrust our loved ones to God with honor and without being emotionally assaulted and vilely stripped of our final memories, must be respected and protected.
In my previous writings on this issue I said:
Let’s hope that the Supreme Court does exactly that. If it does so, in my opinion, it will not be an “erosion” of our First Amendment rights nor will it have a “chilling effect” on news reporting. Neither will it represent a slide on that much-allegorized “slippery slope” towards limiting free speech. Rather it will be an affirmation of our Justice system—a system where individuals are free to do outrageous things, but must be willing to bear the consequences, must be willing to face a jury of their peers.
Well, today the U.S. Supreme Court disagreed with me and with millions of Americans and ruled that the First Amendment protects fundamentalist church members who mount attention-getting, anti-gay protests outside military funerals.
I an 8-1 vote the Court has just decided in favor of the Westboro Baptist Church of Topeka, Kan. “The decision upheld an appeals court ruling that threw out a $5 million judgment to the father of a dead Marine who sued church members after they picketed his son’s funeral.”
I respectfully disagree, but I also respectfully accept the decision in hopes that it will not open the floodgates to similar misuses of our First Amendment.
These are some of the comments on the decision:
“Speech is powerful,” Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. wrote for the majority. “It can stir people to action, move them to tears of both joy and sorrow, and — as it did here — inflict great pain.”
But under the First Amendment, he went on, “we cannot react to that pain by punishing the speaker.” Instead, the national commitment to free speech, he said, requires protection of “even hurtful speech on public issues to ensure that we do not stifle public debate.”
Justice Samuel A. Alito dissented in the case. “He likened the protest to fighting words, which are not protected by the First Amendment.”
“In order to have a society in which public issues can be openly and vigorously debated,” he wrote, “it is not necessary to allow the brutalization of innocent victims.”
Chief Justice Roberts wrote in the ruling that three factors required a ruling in favor of the church group.
Read more about these “factors” and the decision here
The author is a retired U.S. Air Force officer and a writer.