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Free speech: The ultimate test

The Supreme Court heard arguments over the right of Westboro Baptist Church members to show up at funerals of American soldiers carrying signs with slogans such as “Thank God for Dead Soldiers” and “God Hates Fags.”

It’s hard to imagine a more loathsome group than the Westboro Baptist Church, said the Los Angeles Times in an editorial. The tiny Topeka-based church is a “deranged anti-gay” organization with a bizarre belief that U.S. combat deaths in Iraq and Afghanistan are “divine retribution for America’s tolerance of homosexuality.” Church members have made a practice of showing up at funerals for American soldiers carrying signs reading, “Thank God for Dead Soldiers” and “God Hates Fags.” In 2006, Albert Snyder won a $5 million verdict against the church for picketing the funeral of his son, Matthew, a Marine killed in Iraq. A federal appeals court reversed that verdict on First Amendment grounds, and the case was argued last week before the Supreme Court. It may seem like a complex case to decide, said The Washington Post. But if we make hurt feelings the new standard for imposing limits on the First Amendment, everyone’s right to speak out will be “made dependent on the sensibilities of others.”

There are limits to every right, said Clarence Page in the Chicago Tribune. “Somebody has to draw a line when free speech becomes a not-very-subtle form of personal assault.” The Westboro protesters use funeral participants as “a captive audience” for their heartbreaking message; you can’t leave your son’s funeral to get away from the protesters’ “psychological assault.” Don’t these families also have rights—such as the right to bury their sons and daughters with dignity? asked Mitch Albom in the Detroit Free Press. Perhaps society could balance the conflicting rights here by passage of a law banning protests within 10 miles of a cemetery. This way, Westboro’s nuts could stage their protests—but far from the families, the cameras, and the attention they crave.

Good luck drawing that line, said USA Today. Should strikers carrying “offensive picket signs” be required to stay 10 miles away from their employer’s property? Should women seeking abortions be able to sue the protesters outside clinics for emotional distress? Free-speech cases invariably involve disturbing acts by obnoxious people, such as the neo-Nazis who marched in Skokie, Ill., even though they deeply offended the Holocaust survivors who lived there. Supreme Court precedents on these cases are crystal-clear, said Dahlia Lithwick in Slate.com. “Even the most offensive speech is constitutionally protected.” Nearly everyone would silence the Westboro protestors if they could, but “that’s why we needed a First Amendment in the first place.”

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