Opinion Brief

Is 'Thank God for dead soldiers' protected speech?

A father whose son's funeral was disrupted by the infamous Westboro Baptist Church wants damages for emotional distress. Should the Supreme Court side with him?

The Supreme Court heard oral arguments on Wednesday in a case that could redefine what constitutes free speech under the First Amendment. In the case, the father of slain Marine Lance Cpl. Matthew Snyder sued the small Kansas-based Westboro Baptist Church for emotional distress after church members protested outside his son's funeral with signs such as "Thank God for Dead Soldiers." Snyder was awarded $5 million in damages by a Maryland court for emotional distress, but that judgment was overturned on free speech grounds. Were Rev. Fred Phelps and his Westboro clan within their First Amendment rights? (Watch the group defend itself)

Privacy trumps targeted hate speech: Freedom of expression plays a "vital role in our democracy," says Maryland Attorney General Doug Gansler in The Washington Post, but the protestors' right to "express their hate" isn't absolute. The Supreme Court should limit hate speech "targeted at individuals during moments as private as a funeral," so other families don't have to suffer the same incurable wrong."Anti-gay minister shouldn't be able to intrude on soldiers' funerals"

Westboro was within its rights: The Westboro protests are "deeply repugnant," says The New York Times in an editorial, but the Supreme Court has a history of siding with "odious" groups in First Amendment cases, including Hustler and the American Nazi Party. "Strong language about large issues," like U.S. war policy, needs strong protections, "even when it is hard to do so.""Lamentable speech"

Just ignore Phelps: That's "the sound argument," says Tim Rutten in the Los Angeles Times, but it's "a bloodless one." The Snyders, after all, are private citizens whose grief was exploited and amplified by "lunatics," and "do we really want a society that makes no private place for grief?" Regardless of the inevitably "unsatisfying" court ruling, the media should do its part by ignoring this publicity-seeking "hate church." "Loonies and the media"

"Pissed off jurists" make bad law: Judging by the oral arguments, "at least a few of the justices really, really, really just hate the Phelps family and its manner of protest," says Dahlia Lithwick in Slate, and it looks like they are "willing to whip up a little new First Amendment law to prove it." That's too bad. Reading the Constitution through "hate-colored glasses" is a recipe for "very bad precedent.""Up in their grill"

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