The facts: Lance Corporal Matthew Snyder died while on active duty in Iraq in 2006. Pastor Fred Phelps and several members of Westboro Baptist Church stood protest in front of Snyder’s funeral. They picketed with signs that insultingly proclaimed, “Semper Fi Fags!” and “Thank God for Dead Soldiers!”
Soon after, Al Snyder, Matthew Snyder’s father, filed a civil suit against Phelps and the Westboro Church for defamation, invasion of privacy (under the intrusion on seclusion tort) and intentional infliction of emotional distress.
The civil court ruled in Snyder’s favor, which though it was morally correct, was not constitutionally sound.
Phelps appealed in fourth circuit court and won on the grounds and protection of free speech under the First Amendment.
Now at the Supreme Court level, Snyder v. Phelps has become an argument over whether or not hate speech can be qualified as free speech.
In this case, Phelps’ words should be protected under the free speech clause.
Phelps followed every Maryland statute on protests in public places. Where the Maryland clause states that protestors must be at least 100 feet away, Phelps and his group stood 1000 feet away. They called the police in advance to notify them that they would be protesting, and the group also filed for a permit to protest.
In all legality, they had a right to be there. They didn’t go into the church, and they didn’t block the funeral procession. In fact, they were so peaceful in their protesting that Mr. Snyder didn’t even know they were there until he saw a coverage of the event on the news.
However, Phelps’ words were hate speech; speech that attacks a person based on race, religion, gender or, in this case, sexual orientation.
Phelps’ words were evil and hateful. There is no other way to describe them. Phelps was out of line with Christianity, which calls us to love our brothers and sisters. His speech was aiming for a reaction. While he wasn’t directly inciting people from the funeral, his words incited the public after the fact.
While I wish that hate speech was not regarded as free speech, we cannot escape the truth that it is. We as a general public want our own right to free speech. I know I certainly want to speak out openly and freely on issues that I am firmly against. I don’t want that right taken away from me simply because my opposition doesn’t like what I have to say.
In the case of Snyder v. Phelps, the content of the message is more upsetting than the fact that Phelps was there.
Consider this: Phelps’ group was not the only protest group that showed up, but it is the only one whose actions are being questioned.
Another group of protestors, a motorcycle brigade known as the Patriot Guard Riders, showed up in a counter-protest against Phelps’ group, yet Snyder is not filing charges against them. To him, they presented no problem, perhaps because he agreed with their words and actions.
Snyder has every reason to be upset that someone protested at his son’s funeral. Unfortunately, the real issue for the Supreme Court is not the content of the protestors’ message but the fact that they were indeed allowed to be there at all.