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Free Speech at Funeral?

October 7, 2010

The 2010 Supreme Court term began this week and already its had a case that has garnered a lot of attention.  The Supreme Court today heard oral arguments in Snyder v. Phelps, addressing whether there is a new line to be drawn with the much-cherished right to free speech.

Pastor Fred Phelps is the founder of the Westboro Baptist Church, a Topeka, Kansas church that believes that the death of American soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan is deserved punishment for America’s tolerance of homosexuality.  He and members of his church often protest at the funerals of such fallen soldiers.  the case currently before the Supreme Court comes from the presence of Phelps and his church members at the funeral of Marine Lance Corporal Matthew Snyder who was killed in March, 2006, where they protested and displayed signs bearing anti-gay slogans.  As can be expected, such actions were too much for the soldier’s grieving father, who filed suit against Pastor Phelps and the church, alleging intentional infliction of emotional distress, among other things.

The jury trial resulted in a $10.9 million award for Snyder, which was later reduced to $5 million.  But the victory was short lived, as the federal court of appeals reversed the ruling, finding that the First Amendment protects Phelps’ speech at the funerals.

The issue to consider is this:  we may find Phelps’ actions highly inappropriate, to say the least, but in this country, where we value the right to free speech and the open exchange of our views, with few limitations, are we willing to draw the line in a new place?  As Justice Felix Frankfurter of the court of appeals said, “It is a fair summary of history to say that the safeguards of liberty have often been forged in controversies involving not very nice people.”  It is because of that sentiment that many are surprised that the Supreme Court even accepted this case and expect that the court of appeals’ decision will be affirmed.  It is now up to the highest court in the land to decide the battle between the right to free speech and the right to privately grieve for a loved one.

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