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Westboro Baptist's funeral protests put free speech to test

 
 
Reply Mon 4 Oct, 2010 09:13 am
Would you be surprised if the minister of this church is an ashamed homosexual? It seems that so many of the rabid anti-Gay religious people are secret gays themselves. BBB

October 1, 2010
Westboro Baptist's funeral protests put free speech to test
By Michael Doyle | McClatchy Newspapers

WASHINGTON — The most vexing free speech fight in years confronts the Supreme Court on Wednesday, pitting a loud-mouthed, anti-gay Kansas church against a grieving Pennsylvania father.

The father, Albert Snyder, has already won the popular vote hands-down. Forty-eight states support him. So do 42 senators and all the major veterans' organizations.

The constitutional tally, though, isn't nearly so simple.

"The government may not curtail speech simply because the speaker's message may be offensive to his audience," University of Missouri Law School Professor Christina Wells noted in a legal filing.

In Snyder v. Phelps, justices will decide whether to protect speech that Wells characterized as "provocative, offensive and disrespectful." Wells acknowledged it might even be considered "contemptible."

For all the pain they may have caused, however the public rants against homosexuality by the Westboro Baptist Church of Topeka, Kan., might just be found to be protected by the First Amendment.

"This is obviously an emotion-laden case," said Steven R. Shapiro, legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union, but "the First Amendment was designed to protect unpopular speech against (the majority's) distaste. At the end of the day I think that's where the Supreme Court ends up."

Most everyone outside of the small Westboro Baptist Church voices distaste for how church members exploited the funeral of Albert Snyder's son Matthew.

Matthew Snyder was a 20-year-old Marine lance corporal and mechanic serving in Iraq's Anbar province when he died in a non-combat vehicle accident in March 2006. The family planned a private service at a Roman Catholic Church in Maryland.

Fred Phelps Sr., Westboro's 80-year-old pastor, thought the Snyder service could serve his church's purpose. The fundamentalist church, founded in 1955, has about 70 members, about 50 of whom are Phelps' children, grandchildren or in-laws.

Phelps wanted to hijack the March 10, 2006, funeral service as a pulpit to convey his belief that God was punishing the U.S. for tolerating homosexuality.

"The purpose of picketing in connection with funerals is to use an available public platform, when the living contemplate death, that there is a consequence for sin," the church's Topeka-based attorney, Margie J. Phelps, explained in a court brief.

Margie J. Phelps is the daughter of Fred Phelps Sr. She will argue the case Wednesday, defending what the funeral protesters did.

One of the protesters' signs said: "God Hates You." Another said: "You Are Going to Hell." Another said: "Thank God for Dead Soldiers." One sign included, as a legal brief explained, "a picture of two males performing anal sexual intercourse."

The seven protesters were about 1,000 feet from the church, and Albert Snyder didn't see the protest signs until viewing a television news show later that night. Snyder, however, said the demonstration and a related "epic poem" posted on the church's website, www.godhatesfags.com, exacerbated his diabetes and his depression.

"I look at this as an assault on me," Snyder testified. "Someone could have stabbed me in the arm or the back, and the wound would have healed. But I don't think this will heal."

He sued, claiming intentional infliction of emotional distress, and he won. A jury in 2007 awarded Snyder $10.9 million. A judge subsequently lowered the judgment to $5 million.

The 4th Circuit Court of Appeals overturned the judgment. In part, the three appellate judges explained that the funeral protesters' signs "clearly contain imaginative and hyperbolic rhetoric intended to spark debate," and were not impugning the Snyder family.

The 48 states that support Snyder's appeal retort that many legislatures have enacted laws limiting funeral protests. These laws could be undermined if the church wins. Led by Kansas Attorney General Steve Six, the states also that contend funerals are uniquely deserving of freedom from interruption.

"No traditional, necessary or even marginally valuable method of protest will be lost by holding the Phelpses accountable for their emotional terrorism," former acting solicitor general Walter Dellinger argued in the states' brief.

Previously, though, the Supreme Court has protected even grotesque exaggerations despite the pain they may cause. Notably, the court in 1988 unanimously rejected a $200,000 judgment against Hustler magazine for a satirical ad targeting the Rev. Jerry Falwell.

The satire depicted Falwell as supposedly having drunken carnal relations with his mother in an outhouse, among other things. In rejecting Falwell's suit, the Supreme Court stressed a painful constitutional principle likely to recur Wednesday.

"In the world of debate about public affairs, many things done with motives that are less than admirable are protected by the First Amendment," the late Chief Justice William Rehnquist wrote, adding that constitutional protections apply "even when a speaker or writer is motivated by hatred or ill-will."


Read more: http://www.mcclatchydc.com/2010/10/01/101475/churchs-military-funeral-protests.html#ixzz11P2jKMQi
 
dyslexia
 
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Reply Mon 4 Oct, 2010 09:24 am
legitimate free speech is the law of the land. good taste is an opinion.
0 Replies
 
joefromchicago
 
  5  
Reply Mon 4 Oct, 2010 12:33 pm
@BumbleBeeBoogie,
Quote:
"This is obviously an emotion-laden case," said Steven R. Shapiro, legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union, but "the First Amendment was designed to protect unpopular speech against (the majority's) distaste. At the end of the day I think that's where the Supreme Court ends up."

I think Mr. Shapiro is missing the point here. This isn't a case where the government is attempting to silence Fred Phelps and his little Phelpslings. That would be a clear violation of the first amendment. Rather, it's a case where somebody is attempting to make Phelps pay for the emotional distress that his words caused.

It's an interesting case where free speech intersects with tort law, but don't think that, just because it involves speech, it automatically involves protected speech. Intentional infliction of emotional distress almost always involves some sort of speech-act. To draw the line at speech and say that it is always immune against tort claims like the one here is to draw a line that has never before existed in American jurisprudence.

Quote:
Previously, though, the Supreme Court has protected even grotesque exaggerations despite the pain they may cause. Notably, the court in 1988 unanimously rejected a $200,000 judgment against Hustler magazine for a satirical ad targeting the Rev. Jerry Falwell.

The satire depicted Falwell as supposedly having drunken carnal relations with his mother in an outhouse, among other things. In rejecting Falwell's suit, the Supreme Court stressed a painful constitutional principle likely to recur Wednesday.

Apples and oranges. The Hustler case involved a public figure. The supreme court has set a rather high standard in those types of cases in order to foster the free interchange of ideas. Phelps wasn't protesting the funeral of Jerry Falwell or some other public figure, he was protesting at Matthew Snyder's funeral. The rules involving public figures don't apply.
joefromchicago
 
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Reply Mon 4 Oct, 2010 12:35 pm
@BumbleBeeBoogie,
BumbleBeeBoogie wrote:

Would you be surprised if the minister of this church is an ashamed homosexual? It seems that so many of the rabid anti-Gay religious people are secret gays themselves. BBB

Not every homophobe is a closeted homosexual, just as not every anti-Semite is secretly Jewish. A lot of times, they're just assholes.
BumbleBeeBoogie
 
  1  
Reply Mon 4 Oct, 2010 12:40 pm
@joefromchicago,
"he was protesting at Matthew Snyder's funeral"

Your opinion makes sense to me. If I understand you correctly, if the people were saying their opinions inside their church or in a newspaper, etc. That would be covered by free speech. But when they come to the site of the funeral, they are invading a private event on private property to which they were not invited.

Have I got it right?

BBB

BumbleBeeBoogie
 
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Reply Mon 4 Oct, 2010 12:41 pm
@joefromchicago,
True.

BBB
0 Replies
 
dyslexia
 
  1  
Reply Mon 4 Oct, 2010 01:00 pm
@BumbleBeeBoogie,
Quote:
they are invading a private event on private property to which they were not invited.
Have I got it right?

no. you have it wrong. the Westboro Baptists have been very careful in regarding public vs private space.
0 Replies
 
joefromchicago
 
  2  
Reply Mon 4 Oct, 2010 01:10 pm
@BumbleBeeBoogie,
BumbleBeeBoogie wrote:

"he was protesting at Matthew Snyder's funeral"

Your opinion makes sense to me. If I understand you correctly, if the people were saying their opinions inside their church or in a newspaper, etc. That would be covered by free speech. But when they come to the site of the funeral, they are invading a private event on private property to which they were not invited.

Have I got it right?

Not exactly. It's not the venue that is important, it's the status of the person at whom the speech is directed. There's a greater public interest in encouraging debate about public figures than there is about private persons. It's one thing to say something that would cause emotional distress to Jerry Falwell, who had national prominence. It's another to say something that will cause emotional distress to the parents of an ordinary soldier killed in action.
dyslexia
 
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Reply Mon 4 Oct, 2010 01:27 pm
fro the Mcclatchy cut and paste above;
Quote:
The seven protesters were about 1,000 feet from the church, and Albert Snyder didn't see the protest signs until viewing a television news show later that night.
0 Replies
 
Merry Andrew
 
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Reply Mon 4 Oct, 2010 01:37 pm
There's another major difference between the Hustler/Falwell case and this reprehensible display of un-Chistian behavior. The Hustler magazine item was an obvious satire. The editors obviously did not intend to accuse the Rev. Falwell of having sex with his mother in an outhouse. The fact that Falwell is a public figure legitimized the intent of the satire.
JPB
 
  1  
Reply Mon 4 Oct, 2010 02:03 pm
@Merry Andrew,
That's similar to what the appeals court decided in this case when it overturned to lower court's judgment.

Quote:
the funeral protesters' signs "clearly contain imaginative and hyperbolic rhetoric intended to spark debate," and were not impugning the Snyder family.
0 Replies
 
dyslexia
 
  1  
Reply Mon 4 Oct, 2010 02:09 pm
@joefromchicago,
Quote:
It's another to say something that will cause emotional distress to the parents of an ordinary soldier killed in action.
so where is that line crossed Joe? At the risk of being a bully, I think I'm disagreeing with you.
joefromchicago
 
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Reply Mon 4 Oct, 2010 02:24 pm
@dyslexia,
dyslexia wrote:

Quote:
It's another to say something that will cause emotional distress to the parents of an ordinary soldier killed in action.
so where is that line crossed Joe?

That's a good question -- and that's why we have courts.

The rule set out in Hustler Magazine v. Falwell is that the first amendment protects speech even if it is intended to inflict emotional distress, but only when the target of that speech is a public figure. "[W]hile such a bad motive may be deemed controlling for purposes of tort liability in other areas of the law, we think the First Amendment prohibits such a result in the area of public debate about public figures." The court reasoned that debate about public affairs should not be chilled by the threat of tort suits claiming that the debate injured someone's emotional tranquility. But that only applies to public figures. The Court left open the possibility that speech directed against private figures could still be the basis for a claim of intentional infliction of emotional distress.

dyslexia wrote:
At the risk of being a bully, I think I'm disagreeing with you.

If you disagree with me, you don't risk being a bully, you just risk being wrong.
dyslexia
 
  1  
Reply Mon 4 Oct, 2010 02:34 pm
@joefromchicago,
Quote:
you just risk being wrong
well yes, there's a first time for everything. (I suppose)
0 Replies
 
JPB
 
  2  
Reply Mon 4 Oct, 2010 02:40 pm
@joefromchicago,
joefromchicago wrote:

The Court left open the possibility that speech directed against private figures could still be the basis for a claim of intentional infliction of emotional distress.


Which is where the question of the hyperbolic but obscure aspect of the signs and protests comes in. They were across the street carrying signs that had nothing specifically to do with Matthew Synder or his family. There was no claim or insinuation that Matthew was homosexual, right? Isn't that the basis of the Appeals Court ruling?
dyslexia
 
  0  
Reply Mon 4 Oct, 2010 02:47 pm
@JPB,
I'm seeing this as a prime example of a mass public screaming "there ought to be a law" while ignoring the consequences of such laws. In addition BBB's opening comment about "ashamed homosexual" is a barely concealed homophobic insult itself.
blueveinedthrobber
 
  1  
Reply Mon 4 Oct, 2010 03:15 pm
How about we give Westboro Baptist and their ilk the first amendment right to do the disgusting crap they do because after all, this is America, but pass a law that makes non verbal communication protected and okay, and this will allow people to beat the goddam **** out of them by way of expressing their distaste.
0 Replies
 
JPB
 
  1  
Reply Mon 4 Oct, 2010 03:18 pm
@dyslexia,
dyslexia wrote:

I'm seeing this as a prime example of a mass public screaming "there ought to be a law" while ignoring the consequences of such laws.


Yeah, me too. joe's response to your question about where the line is drawn talks about speech directed against private individuals.

joe, who is always right wrote:
The Court left open the possibility that speech directed against private figures could still be the basis for a claim of intentional infliction of emotional distress.


Their actions weren't directed against Matthew or his father. They were directed against America. They didn't disrupt the service and the family wasn't aware of their presence until they watched the evening news. As much as I abhor the actions and what the Phelps' stand for, it isn't against the law to be an asshole.
joefromchicago
 
  1  
Reply Mon 4 Oct, 2010 03:57 pm
@JPB,
JPB wrote:
Which is where the question of the hyperbolic but obscure aspect of the signs and protests comes in. They were across the street carrying signs that had nothing specifically to do with Matthew Synder or his family. There was no claim or insinuation that Matthew was homosexual, right? Isn't that the basis of the Appeals Court ruling?


Well, a few of the signs said "you," like "God hates you." Who the "you" referred to there is not clear. On the other hand, "You're going to hell" can, in the context, really only refer to Matthew Snyder, the dead soldier.

But then that's not the focus here. It's not Matthew Snyder who was emotionally distressed by all of this, it was his father, Albert. Even if the signs said that Matthew was gay, it's the effect on Albert's emotional well-being that would be at issue. And the signs don't have to be directed at him, they just have to cause him distress.

The appellate court's reasoning, as I understand it from a quick skim, is that Phelps didn't direct his signs at anybody in particular. He was just using the funeral as an occasion to raise matters of public concern. The funeral, then, was just a backdrop for the signs -- it had nothing to do with the Snyder family. Furthermore, the court held that the signs didn't really refer to Matthew Snyder, they referred to an issue of public concern (presumably, the issue of whether god wants fags to go to hell or something like that). Since an objective observer would conclude that the signs weren't directed specifically at Matthew Snyder or the Snyder family, the court ruled that it was protected speech.

I'd have to read the appellate court's opinion more closely, but I'm not convinced that it's right in this case.
0 Replies
 
JPB
 
  1  
Reply Mon 4 Oct, 2010 04:13 pm
@JPB,
JPB wrote:

Their actions weren't directed against Matthew or his father. They were directed against America. They didn't disrupt the service and the family wasn't aware of their presence until they watched the evening news. As much as I abhor the actions and what the Phelps' stand for, it isn't against the law to be an asshole.


Ok... I read the facts of the case in joes link and I see that the family was specifically and intentionally targeted, both at the funeral and on the "Epic". I haven't read the decision yet, but I'm not surprised the SC has decided to hear the case.
0 Replies
 
 

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