Sometimes, Free Speech is Painful: The Supremes Consider Phelps v. Snyder

Okay, folks, this should be a no-brainer for those of us who actually care about the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. I know I’m going to take some flak for this one…

The Supreme Court is hearing the case of Phelps v. Snyder, which is a case involving the Reverend Fred Phelps and his disgusting inbred church. Here's the beginning of an article from

The Supreme Court seemed to have trouble putting aside the ugliness of the message to focus on the rights of the messenger Wednesday, as justices tried to balance free speech against the privacy owed a grieving family burying a son.

With protesters on the marble plaza outside a packed courtroom, the justices considered the case of the Westboro Baptist Church of Topeka, Kan., whose anti-gay demonstrations have targeted the military funerals of troops killed in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The church – which is made up almost entirely of the family members of its founder, the Rev. Fred W. Phelps – contends that the deaths are God's revenge for the country's tolerance of homosexuality. Albert Snyder – the father of Matthew Snyder, 20, a Marine whose funeral was one of hundreds the group picketed – sued.

Most First Amendment experts said before the argument that they expected the court to make a straightforward, if distasteful, ruling that even vile public speech is protected by the First Amendment. If that is what the justices decide, though, it appeared from the oral arguments that it would not come without some angst.

Sean E. Summers, who represents Snyder, set the tone with his first words to the justices.

"We're talking about a funeral," he said. "If context is ever going to matter, it has to matter in the context of a funeral. Mr. Snyder simply wanted to bury his son in a private, dignified manner."

There is actually something comforting about the statement, “The Supreme Court seemed to have trouble putting aside the ugliness of the message to focus on the rights of the messenger.” That’s what they should do.

This is such an emotional issue. The Fred Phelps family and their disgusting church are about as un-Christian as it gets. Frankly, they’d better hope there is no God and there is no Hell, because if there is, He is sure to put them there for eternity for the things they have done. They are immoral douchebags, and frankly, picketing a serviceman’s funeral is about as un-American as it gets.

But the greatest test of free speech comes not when someone says, “God bless America,” but when someone says “God Damn America.”

The proper response to assholes like Fred Phelps and his disgusting kin, who make up pretty much the entire congregation of Westboro Baptist Church, is to ignore them. To even acknowledge them feeds on their egos, and actually makes them stronger.

There is something about this case that has always bothered me, and it’s been the claim of a “right to privacy” here.

Yes, contrary to what a lot of right wingers believe, there is a right to privacy in the Constitution. But how does it apply here? The Phelpsians weren’t inside the church, and they weren’t in the private cemetery. They were standing on a public street, hundreds of feet from the church entrance and a long way from the cemetery, where Matthew Snyder was buried. How is it possible to have an expectation of privacy along a public street? And if we grant this family that sort of “zone of privacy,” how far do we take that? if there is a strip club on the route between the church and the cemetery, should it be forced to shut down, so that the family doesn’t have to see it on their “private” drive to bury their son?

I would be on the other side, if Phelps and his inbred family went inside the church and held signs and chanted, or they had followed the family into the cemetery. If they had even dogged the cars in the funeral procession, or shouted hatred into the cars, the Snyder family should own them. But in the end, they were on a public street, and they have that right, no matter what we think about them or their message. There is a right to roll the windows up and keep your head down and not listen to or read anything they have to say; you do not have the right to punish them for public speech on a public sidewalk, as long as no other laws were being broken.

This is a hard case to analyze. My visceral reaction is that the Snyders should get everything they’re asking for. If morality were the only barometer available here, I would suggest throwing the book at Westboro Baptist Church. I have all the sympathy in the world for the Snyder family, and as much contempt as I can muster for the Phelps family of creeps. But if we are going to uphold concepts of free speech, we have to do so for everyone, including the scumbags. Absent an issue of public safety, I don’t see how the Supreme Court can side with the Snyder family against free speech. If we allow Fred Phelps’ free speech rights to be abrogated, we don’t honor what Matthew Snyder fought for. He fought for Fred Phelps’ right to be an asshole.

It’s a tough subject, I know, but the right thing isn’t always the easiest or the best thing.

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