To give a little background, Albert Snyder sued Fred Phelps (of Hillsboro Baptist Church) and won a $5 million dollar award charging that Fred Phelps was responsible for intentionally inflicting "emotional distress and violating the sanctity of the funeral of his son, Lance Corporal Mathew Snyder." The judgement was later reversed by a federal appeals court because "despite the offensive nature of the protests... their activities were protected by the First Amendment." READ MORE>>
This is an extremely important case because a ruling on this case will have far reaching implications for all of our first amendment rights.
There is really only one issue on the table here: Does the First Amendment protect one's "right" to say something that is offensive on public property?
We know that on private property one's free speech can be curtailed (i.e. "You can leave now or I can call the police and have them remove you for trespassing."), but if the protesters were on a public sidewalk while protesting it shouldn't make a difference whether they were saying "God Bless Our Fallen Soldiers!" or "God Hates Your Dead Son!"
Both statements reflect personal opinions of the speakers and both have been traditionally upheld as protected FREE SPEECH.
An article in the Christian Science Monitor highlights some of the issues that are bound to arise in this case.
Family members and others at military funerals have complained about the protests. But Phelps and his supporters insist they have a constitutional right to carry their message to the people at the funerals.Now the question becomes can the SCOTUS defend the constitutional right for people to say what they believe even if it's offensive on public property not fearing the criticism they're bound to receive for "[sharing their] foxhole with scoundrels" who wouldn't have the decency to understand that even the dead deserve a certain amount of respect.
“Snyder had one (and only one) opportunity to bury his son and that occasion has been tarnished forever,” wrote Mr. Snyder’s lawyer, Sean Summers of York, Pa., in his petition urging the high court to take up the case. “Snyder deserved better. Matthew deserved better. A civilized society deserved better.”
The appeals court that reversed the jury verdict did not disagree with that point. But the appeals court said despite the “distasteful and repugnant nature of the words being challenged,” Phelps had a First Amendment right to speak on public issues, even when the speech was highly offensive.
The panel quoted a fellow appeals court judge: “Judges defending the Constitution must sometimes share [their] foxhole with scoundrels of every sort, but to abandon the post because of the poor company is to sell freedom cheaply.”
The opinion continues: “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.”
The implications are obvious.
- If offensive speech is not protected then who decides which speech is offensive?
- If something offends me does that automatically make it "illegal" speech.
- Moreover, if some speech becomes "offensive" and therefore unprotected then certainly other speech is elevated as being "more important", so can the courts really decide that our constitution protects some types of political and religious speech and not others?
All in all, this could go very bad for America depending on how the SCOTUS rules. Keep an eye on this case, and if you're religious I hope that you'll pray Free Speech (even that which you don't agree with) is defended.