Snyder vs. Phelps: the Limits of Free Speech?

The Supreme Court has recently agreed to hear the case of Snyder v. Phelps next year. It’s going to be a lightning rod case when it’s heard next fall, and for me it’s a fascinating examination of free speech, hate speech and the limits of protest. Here are the facts of the case:

Matthew Snyder was a 20 year old marine who died in combat in Iraq in 2006. His body was returned and his funeral was held at St. John’s Catholic Church in Westminster, Maryland. Outside his church Fred Phelps and other members of his Westboro Baptist Church picketed outside the church with signs that claimed Matt’s death was the result of God’s punishment against the United States for permitting (among other things) homosexuality.

Matt’s father, Albert, filed suit in June of 2006 against Fred Phelps (and others). In 2007 a jury awarded Mr. Snyder $10.9 million. Mr. Phelps appealed and in 2008 the verdict was overturned claiming that while Phelps is offensive, his speech is protected by the 1st Amendment. Last week the Supreme Court agreed to hear the case next year.

This raises several interesting issues, though perhaps not the ones you may think. It goes without saying that Fred Phelps and the other protesters are offensive to an incredible degree. He believes that homosexuals, the Catholic Church, jews, and others are depraved and condemned by God. Because the United States tolerates this, God is expressing his wrath through natural disasters (Hurricane Katrina), terrorist events (9/11), and battle casualties (Iraq and Afghanistan).

And while Phelp’s behavior is offensive, that is not cause for a lawsuit. Simply put, nobody has the right to not be offended; the first amendment protects your right to be offensive. But as we all know, there are limits on free speech. You can’t yell “fire” in a crowded theater unless it really is on fire. Hate speech is not protected (e.g. leaving a noose on a tree branch).

Neither is defamation. Albert Snyder claimed he was defamed because Phelp’s signs said (among other things) Albert “taught him how to support the largest pedophile machine in the history of the entire world, the Roman Catholic monstrosity.” He also claimed invasion of privacy (that Phelps and the other protesters “intruded on seclusion”). The defamation charge was dropped and it went to trial on the charges of intrusion on seclusion and intentional affliction of emotional distress. As I said, the jury found for the plaintiff and awarded damages of almost $11 million.

On appeal it was decided that Phelp’s right to free speech outweighs Snyder’s intrusion on seclusion and intentional affliction of emotional abuse. That is the issue the Supreme Court will take up next year.

It’s a tough case. I’m normally a fundamentalist when it comes to freedom of speech. I don’t think we are protected from hearing things we don’t want to hear and we’re not protected from getting our feelings hurt. What happened to the Snyder family, though, goes way beyond hurt feelings. Having to bury a child (no matter how old) is one of the most painful experiences anyone can imagine. Seeing Fred Phelps and others using Matt’s funeral as a platform to push his agenda of hate is beyond painful.

But does it rise to level of limiting free speech? It’s certainly sinful and horrible, and I suspect that when Fred Phelps dies he’s not going to like the all loving God any more than he likes the rest of us. But I have to admit that part of me thinks we would do better by ignoring Fred and the other hate mongers; in a sense telling him that he has the right to say what he wants, but we have the right not to listen to it.

In any case, one nice thing that came out of this is that President Bush signed into law that prohibits this kind of protest. The Respect for America’s Fallen Heroes Act makes it a crime to protest within 300 feet of the entrance of a national cemetery.

We’ll see how this turns out.

2 thoughts on “Snyder vs. Phelps: the Limits of Free Speech?

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