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March 11, 2011

High court ruling for Phelps has a silver lining

Washington, D.C.--The Supreme Court ruled on March 2 that the Westboro Baptist Church’s protests at soldiers’ funerals are protected under the First Amendments guarantees of free speech.

The court ruled 8-1 against Albert Snyder, who filed suit for the emotional distress caused by the church’s protests at his son Matthew’s funeral.

The church, which is primarily composed of members of leader Fred Phelps’ family, carried signs thanking God for dead soldiers and the September 11 attacks, saying that Matthew Snyder was going to hell, that God hates the United States and gays, and reworking the Marine Corps motto as “Semper Fag.”

The court ruled that even hateful speech on public issues can further the cause of public debate.

The one dissenter was Justice Samuel Alito, who wrote, “Our profound national commitment to free and open debate is not a license for the vicious verbal assault that occurred in this case,” according to the Associated Press. Alito noted that Snyder simply sought to “bury his son in peace,” and instead was “brutally attacked.”

The ruling mirrors earlier ones from the court, including the 1988 decision overturning Jerry Falwell’s libel verdict in his suit against Larry Flynt, the publisher of Hustler.

Chief Justice John Roberts noted that the protest at the funeral was not a personal attack against Matthew Snyder or his father, that Westboro pickets regardless of race, religion or sexual orientation.

“Speech is powerful. It can stir people to action, move them to tears of both joy and sorrow, and--as it did here--inflict great pain,” wrote Roberts. “On the facts before us, we cannot react to that pain by punishing the speaker.”

Snyder’s son was killed in 2006, and at the funeral, Westboro protested. Counterprotesters were present, as were police.

Later, searching the internet for tributes to Matthew, the elder Snyder found a poem on Westboro’s website criticizing the way he raised Matthew. He then filed suit, and was awarded $11 million, which was later reduced to $5 million.

A federal appeals court overturned the ruling, and the Supreme Court concurred with the appellate court. Veteran groups, states and senators took Snyder’s side, calling the church’s actions psychological terrorism.

Observers believe that Snyder may have had a different result had his attorney put more emphasis on the poem on Westboro’s website, which was a clear personal attack.

However, despite the repugnance of the message, the ruling may prove beneficial to the LGBT community, providing a counterargument when opponents of LGBT equality claim that a gay civil rights law or hate crime legislation will stifle their rights to free speech.

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