The Supreme Court heard oral arguments Wednesday over a classic First Amendment case: At what point does free speech become so offensive that is loses its protection under the Constitution? At issue are the crude anti-gay protests staged by members of the Kansas-based Westboro Baptist Church at military funerals.
The father of a Marine killed in Iraq has asked the court to reinstate a $5 million judgment against the Rev. Fred Phelps and other church members who picketed his son's funeral, carrying signs saying "Thank God for Dead Soldiers" and "God Hates Fags." Phelps and his followers were not arguing that the man being buried was gay, but that war deaths are God's punishment of a country that tolerates homosexuality.
Albert Snyder of York, Pa., says he was harmed by the protest, even though it was nonviolent. The demonstration not only tarnished his son Matthew's funeral, he said, but it is burned into his memory of his last day with his slain son. Lance Cpl. Matthew Snyder died in a Humvee accident in 2006.
A Baltimore judge agreed that Snyder has been injured -- emotional distress -- and ordered the cash award. But an appeals court overturned the verdict on First Amendment grounds. The Constitution, after all, is supposed to protect unpopular speech as well as conventional views.
"No American should ever be required to apologize for following his or her conscience," Phelps' daughter Margie Phelps told the Associated Press
. Margie Phelps, a lawyer, is representing the fundamentalist church. Church members -- usually six or seven of them -- have picketed other funerals and events
across the country.
The Supreme Court is being asked to determine how far private entities such as cemeteries and churches can go to justify picket-free zones or buffers to silence or limit the speech of demonstrators. The Supreme Court is not expected to rule on the matter for several months.
A line of people hoping to hear the arguments before the court Wednesday morning stretched around a corner from the court building, which faces the east front of the Capitol.
Also on the scene were Westboro protesters and those opposed to them. "This nation will be no more once we're gone!" said Jacobs Phelps, 27, a grandson of Fred Phelps. He was holding a sign that read "Thank God for Dead Soldiers." His message was countered by area students, including George Washington University freshman Sam Garrett, dressed in sneakers and tight boxer briefs, the Washington Post reports
. He carried a sign that read "Fred Phelps wishes he were hot like me!"
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