Military funeral protests: Free speech?

Albert Snyder (AP)

One thing Al Snyder wants to make clear: His boy fought and died for freedom in Iraq, but not for the right of some “wackos” to spew hate at soldiers’ funerals under the protection of the Constitution.

“It’s an insult to myself, my family and the veterans to say this is what our military men and women died for,” Snyder says, barely concealing his anger.

Yet more than four years after the death of his only son, Matthew, Snyder is in the middle of a Supreme Court case that raises almost precisely that issue.

The court is set to decide whether members of a fundamentalist church in Kansas who picketed Matthew’s funeral with signs bearing anti-gay and anti-Catholic invective have a constitutional right to say what they want.

Or, in intruding on a private citizen’s funeral in a hurtful way, have the protesters crossed a line and given Snyder the right to collect millions of dollars for the emotional pain they caused?

The justices will hear arguments in the case next Wednesday.

The case is shaping up as a potentially important test of the First Amendment. “The difficulty in this case is that the speech occurs at the most personal and sensitive of times,” said Cliff Sloan, a First Amendment expert at the Skadden, Arps law firm and the former publisher of Slate magazine.

Margie Phelps, a daughter of the pastor of the Westboro Baptist Church and the lawyer representing her family members at the Supreme Court, said that if the justices reinstate the $5 million judgment to Snyder, anyone who says anything upsetting to a mourner “is subject to a crushing penalty.”

But Snyder said in an interview with The Associated Press that if he had the chance, he would tell the justices “that this isn’t a case of free speech. It’s case of harassment.”

Snyder’s nightmare began on a late winter night in 2006 when he flipped on the porch light and saw two uniformed Marines standing at the front door of his home in this small south central Pennsylvania city.

He knew right away that Matthew was dead, after just five weeks in Iraq.

He could accept his son’s death because Matthew always wanted to be a soldier.

But Snyder was not prepared for what came next.

Eleven hundred miles away, in Topeka, Kan., the Rev. Fred Phelps and other family members who make up most of the Westboro Baptist Church decided that Snyder’s funeral at a Catholic church in Westminster, Md., would be their next stop.

Phelps and his small band of followers have picketed many military funerals in their quest to draw attention to their incendiary view that U.S. deaths in Afghanistan and Iraq are God’s punishment for the nation’s tolerance of homosexuality.

They showed up with the usual signs, including “Thank God for dead soldiers,” “You’re Going to Hell,” “God Hates the USA/Thank God for 9/11,” and one that combined the U.S. Marine Corps motto, Semper Fi, with a slur against gay men.

The church members drew counter-demonstrators, as well as media coverage and a heavy police presence to maintain order. The result was a spectacle that led to altering the route of the funeral procession.

Several weeks later, as Snyder surfed the Internet for tributes to Matthew from other soldiers and strangers, he came upon a poem on the church’s website that attacked Snyder and his ex-wife for the way they brought up Matthew.

That’s when he decided to take action and soon filed a lawsuit accusing the Phelpses of intentionally inflicting emotional distress. He won $11 million at trial, later reduced by a judge to $5 million.

Then the federal appeals court in Richmond, Va., threw out the verdict and said the Constitution shielded the church members from liability.

The idea that the picketers’ rights might trump his own led Snyder to continue the lawsuit. “They want to use the First Amendment as both a sword and a shield and that’s not right,” he said.

The Supreme Court gave him some hope that, in deciding to hear the case, the justices might say that funerals are different.

Phelps and his followers do not limit themselves to funerals. They have been protesting for decades, about homosexuality, abortion, Catholics and Jews. The court is made up of six Catholics and three Jews.

The Phelpses have even picketed unlikely targets, college students and breast-cancer survivors, to call attention to their belief that God is angry with the United States.

When Chief Justice John Roberts appeared in Lawrence, Kan., in 2008, Westboro protesters were there as well.

Asked about free speech cases that day, Roberts said, “It’s certainly the responsibility of the Supreme Court to uphold freedom of speech, even when it’s unpopular.”

Media organizations, including The Associated Press, are urging the court to side with the Phelpses despite what they call the church’s “deeply offensive” message.

The groups said that “to silence a fringe messenger because of the distastefulness of the message is antithetical to the First Amendment’s most basic precepts.”

Other groups, including the Anti-Defamation League, are not taking sides, but say the case is a poor one for making any broad pronouncements about the First Amendment that could inhibit religious expression. Some conservative groups are concerned that a ruling for Snyder could be used to limit anti-abortion protests.

On the other side, all the states, except Maine and Virginia, and veterans groups say that the court should stand behind state laws that limit funeral protests and recognize that mourners at a funeral have a right to be left alone.

The church’s lawyer said the outcome of the case will not affect the work of her father and his flock. “The Westboro Baptist Church will talk to the nation until the job is done,” Margie Phelps said.

Snyder said he thinks a victory would “put a dent” in the Phelpses’ ability to travel far and wide to other military funerals.

He wants other parents, having just been told a child was killed in action, not to have worry that the funeral might be disrupted. “I had one chance to bury my son and it was taken from me,” Snyder said.

But he also struck a more ominous tone. “It has to be stopped,” Snyder said. “If the courts don’t stop it, believe me, someone is going to.”

Copyright © 2010 The Associated Press

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7 Responses to "Military funeral protests: Free speech?"

  1. Carl Nemo  October 1, 2010 at 1:17 am

    Tragically Al Snyder simply cannot fathom that his son died for absolutely nothing other for plumping some corporate entity’s bottomline. : |

    All the feelgood rhetoric about our young men and women dying for the maintenance of freedom etc. has become totally perverted by a phony ‘New Age’ patriotic construct linked again to profits, but surely not a genuine sense of nation and the maintenance thereof from the top down.

    Wars too have been corporatized. Everything has become a “smoke and mirrors” illusion and seemingly we are living in “The Matrix”. : |

    Carl Nemo **==

    • logtroll  October 1, 2010 at 8:39 am

      Milo Minderbinder Enterprises.

      So, what’s new?

    • Almandine  October 1, 2010 at 11:41 am

      I don’t believe Snyder’s issue is a challenge by Phelps et al to the belief that his son died for the patriotic values long attached to fighting for the US. Those values remain strong in most of our citizens, in essentially all of our military personnel, and are well-recognized across the world. Snyder hates Phelps for disrespecting his son.

      Similarly, misappropriation, by the criminal banking and political elite, of the heroic actions related to those patriotic values, has no bearing on the valor displayed by military personnel who have fought and died for “this country”. Neither does it bear on whether Americans ought to be patriotic, even given that misappropriation.

      The issue here is simply a bunch of redneck fundamentalist Baptists who have their own beliefs about the type of society this country has engendered. They believe Americans, particularly soldiers, are the “devil’s henchmen”. Call their terrorist actions “Sharia law, Westboro style.”

      And I agree with Snyder… somebody will beat hell out of them some day.

      • Carl Nemo  October 1, 2010 at 5:28 pm

        Re: …”patriotic values long attached to fighting for the US. Those values remain strong in most of our citizens, in essentially all of our military personnel, and are well-recognized across the world.” …extract from post

        Yep, Al they sure are “well-recognized across the world”. Starting with Nam our nation lost its steerage, simply engaging in wars for the purpose of enriching the MIC and protecting the “oil patch’s” interest in the Malaysia, SE Asia and the South China Seas.

        I suggest you look into the short read “War is a Racket” written by a highly decorated Marine General; ie., Smedley Butler.

        http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Smedley_Butler

        All three of my brothers including myself are retired, officer class military. Two are now engaged in government contracting post retirement. We represent all branches of the service. One of them is no longer speaking with me as a function of my views aired on the web, specifically on CHB. My observations concerning most military personnel over the years is they live a fairly sheltered, protected life as career personnel. Most have a myopic view of geopolitics and simply follow orders; operating with a bucket on their heads. It’s easier that way; to simply say “I was simply following orders”, ala Adolph Eichmann when things go badly. Our modern era “chickenhawk crimpols” have linked foreign adventurism in Iraq and Afghanistan as an expression of ‘patriotism’ on the part of our men and women engaged in this modern example of the “Roman Empire redux”. Our professional military is absolutely the worst thing ever dreamed up by scheming crimpols and their patrons in the MIC. Instead of having citizen/soldiers drafted from a broad population base we have “pro’s” who are actually doing quite well compared to personnel in past conflicts. War as has been corporatized while the “mission” has become corrupted.

        Maybe it’s time for our men and women in uniform along with our “Yankee Doodle Dandy” crazed citizenry to wake up and realize how psychologically offensive our nation has become among nations. We’ve become the scourge of the planet, meddling in the affairs of all nations while we ourselves are soon to fall from the greater tree of nations as so much “rotten fruit”. The old, hard line communists predicted as such and seemingly its coming to pass. / : |

        Al Snyder’s son wasn’t fighting for ‘freedom’ in Iraq, he was fighting for “the man”; ie., the MIC, “big oil” and all for the financial pleasure of absolutely corrupt politicians that we now have in Congress and the Executive Branch. If Al were well read and informed as to what shenanigans his government were engaged concerning Iraq and Afghanistan then he would have advised his son that his ‘patriotism’ was misdirected. Issues concerning his son’s burial are nothing, but peripheral “white noise insanity” associated with my outline concerning our nationally predisposed corruption in these times. It’s truly the “twilight’s last gleaming” for our once great nation. We’ve lost our compass and steerage and seemingly are headed for the bottom. : |

        Carl Nemo **==

        • Almandine  October 1, 2010 at 5:47 pm

          Snyder’s son was fighting for his dream… his country… his countrymen… which was the gist of that part of my post. It wasn’t about fighting “the man”. You seem to be fixated of late with that thought.

          I made clear my agreement with your assessment that our heritage and values had been misappropriated by “the man”, but you can’t accept that agreement as anything other than another opportunity to rave on and on. It’s easy to understand the rift between you and your brother, who obviously doesn’t want to feel his service to his fellow citizens was in vain. AGAIN – service to his fellow citizens. His countrymen. His family and friends. You. NOT THE MAN.

          So, my post was about the article at hand… the angst of Snyder and the repugnant acts of Phelps and his band of idiots.

          Take a break Carl.

          • Carl Nemo  October 1, 2010 at 5:56 pm

            Thanks Al for your succinct feedback, but I still believe unless “We the People” can’t separate true patriotism from foreign adventurism along with our modern era corrupt version of the military and its mission; as opposed to simply providing for the “common defense”, not “offense”, we are doomed as a nation. : |

            Best regards always…

            Carl Nemo **==

  2. Almandine  October 1, 2010 at 10:59 pm

    Best to you too, and your bro.

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