Monday, August 30, 2010

Protest at Military Funeral Ignites a Test of Free Speech

Albert Snyder tears up, then turns angry as he recalls burying his Marine son while members of the anti-gay fundamentalist Westboro Baptist Church picketed nearby.

"I can remember being presented the flag at the graveyard. I can remember saluting the coffin," Snyder says of the unusually balmy day in March 2006 when the family memorialized Matthew, a lance corporal killed in Iraq.

Yet, Snyder says, he can't separate such moments from the memory that his only son's funeral was picketed by fundamentalist pastor Fred Phelps and his followers with an inflammatory message that had nothing to do with Matthew.

Disconnecting the death of his 20-year-old son from his reaction to the protests "became very difficult."

Snyder, who sued Phelps for his distress, says he feels like he has been stabbed, and the wound will not heal.

The case has grown beyond a single clash between a devastated father and an attention-seeking, fire-and-brimstone group into a major test of speech rights and of safeguards for the sanctity of military funerals. The Supreme Court will hear the case Oct. 6, a crucial First Amendment challenge against the poignant backdrop of war deaths, family suffering and the military's "don't ask, don't tell" policy that allows gays and lesbians to serve — as long as their sexual orientation remains secret.

Fourteen sets of outside organizations have entered the case. Those siding with Snyder include a majority of the states and a bipartisan group of U.S. senators, led by Harry Reid, D-Nev., and Mitch McConnell, R-Ky. Free speech groups, such as the American Civil Liberties Union, say they find Phelps' message horrific but that such speech is exactly what the First Amendment was intended to protect.

Supporters of Snyder, including the Veterans of Foreign Wars and the states, emphasize the importance of protecting the privacy of grieving families and minimize the value of the Phelps' speech.

Phelps, who preaches that God hates gay people and protests what he views as the nation's tolerance of homosexuality — particularly the "don't ask, don't tell" policy — brushes off Snyder's anguish. In a telephone interview from his Topeka home, Phelps says the father's claim of emotional injuries is exaggerated.

"He ought to be very thankful to us that we ... warn people about the perils of sinful conduct that will destroy a nation," Phelps says.

Phelps knew nothing about Matthew Snyder, who was not gay, beyond that his funeral in Westminster, Md., offered the chance to draw attention to Phelps' message. Among the signs he brought were some that said, "Thank God for Dead Soldiers."Snyder sued Phelps and family members who were the primary demonstrators for the distress he suffered from their picketing and a Web video the Phelpses created about their protest. Snyder won a $5 million verdict in 2007. A federal appeals court overturned the judgment last year, saying the Phelps protest was protected by the First Amendment.

The dispute before the Supreme Court involves Maryland law, yet cases related to the Phelpses and other local laws are simmering across the country. The issue for the justices in Snyder v. Phelps is an individual's claim for damages from offensive messages, not the validity of government limits on protests near funerals.

"Free speech ideals usually are pretty abstract," observes University of Missouri law professor Christina Wells, who has written extensively on protesters' rights. "People say we agree with the First Amendment but when we get into areas that are offensive, like flag burning, people are much less tolerant."

Wells is among several scholars of First Amendment law, civil libertarians and news media representatives who have joined briefs stressing the need to protect odious speech.

The Veterans of Foreign Wars, among the groups on Snyder's side, counters in its brief, "If Albert Snyder, a grieving father of an American hero, cannot seek remedy from (Phelps and his relatives) for the emotional torment (they) viciously imposed upon him, what purpose do our laws serve?"

"You only get one chance to do a burial," adds Harrisburg, Pa., lawyer Timothy Nieman, who wrote the VFW's filing. He says the Westboro protest created "a circus atmosphere at a private, sanctified time."

To continue reading this story in USA Today, click here.

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