Supreme Court justices may be tempted to rule against the Westboro Baptist Church out of understandable sympathy for father of Lance Cpl. Matthew A. Snyder, a Marine killed in Iraq. They should resist the temptation.
Allowing even private figures to recover damages for distress caused by the political or religious speech of others would be a dramatic departure from the court’s protection of free expression no matter how offensive. And it would have reverberations in settings far removed from military funerals.
The appeals court’s most important finding was that the church, however outrageously, was addressing matters of public concern, just as Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson were when they suggested that the 9/11 terrorist attacks were God’s punishment for toleration of abortion and homosexuality. No doubt that statement caused emotional distress for relatives of 9/11 victims, but it was constitutionally protected. The court should rule that the First Amendment also protects the ravings of the Westboro Baptist Church.
— Los Angeles Times editorial
The Phelpses did not happen to picket within sight of Matthew Snyder’s funeral. They announced their intention to hijack the event. They stood at the church entrance, forcing the procession to reroute. They published an insult-filled “Epic” about the Snyder family. Albert Snyder was not a passer-by who happened to dislike what he heard; he was the victim of harassment.
Matthew Snyder was not gay. No one in his family holds public office or is outspoken on gay rights. The Phelpses randomly picked the Snyders. Shielding their conduct from liability gives them free rein to show up at any funeral spouting anti-gay epithets and to write hate-filled tirades about any person. The First Amendment does not protect such arbitrary persecution.
Albert Snyder asks merely that he be compensated for harm. Snyder presented evidence that the Phelpses’ conduct made him vomit, interfered with his mourning process and worsened his diabetes.
The First Amendment may exist to protect unpopular speech, but private lawsuits exist so that those who cause injury will be held accountable to their victims.
— Richard L. Eubank, Veterans of Foreign Wars of the United States, in a USA Today commentary