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March 4, 2011

A Victory for Free Speech?

Kevin E. Dayhoff

By a vote of 8-1, the U.S. Supreme Court issued a long awaited decision Wednesday over the collision of free speech, common sense and decency and our right to privacy in the case of Albert Snyder v. Fred W. Phelps, Sr., and the Westboro Baptist Church.


The Supreme Court ruled against the father of Westminster native Lance Cpl. Matthew Snyder, whose March 10, 2006, funeral was picketed by members of the Kansas-based church. Corporal Snyder was 20 years-old when he died March 3, 2006, in Al Anbar Province, Iraq.


The irony abounds that the Westboro band of graceless sociopaths have chosen over the years to disparage and heap emotional abuse on families at the funerals of the very men and women in uniform, who have died defending the right of these creeps to exercise their right to free speech.


The controversy that initiated the test of the limits of free speech began shortly after Snyder’s death. In a paroxysmal milieu, the Snyder family is an otherwise unlikely fulcrum for all this drama.


The Baltimore Sun reported on March 10, 2006, that Snyder’s family “desperately wanted to keep his death from being politicized.”


The Westboro Baptist Church demonstrators were certainly uninvited guests at what was otherwise a solemn occasion as a mournful community came together to honor one its own native sons who had perished in a far off land in the defense of his country.


But there they were with signs proclaiming “God Hates You” and other such slogans far too vile to print here, much less displayed in public at our local Catholic Church, just over a mile or so from my house and across the street from a middle school in an otherwise tranquil patriotic community.


On June 5, 2006, Lance Cpl. Snyder’s father filed a federal lawsuit against the Westboro Baptist Church asking for compensatory and punitive damages as a result of their behavior at the funeral.


In an Explore Carroll article I helped write Wednesday, “The court ruled that the Westboro protest, though hurtful, is protected by the U.S. Constitution, even when held at a military funeral. ‘Westboro may have chosen the picket location to increase publicity for its views, and its speech may have been particularly hurtful to Snyder,’ the court wrote in its opinion. ‘That does not mean that its speech should be afforded less than full First Amendment protection under the circumstances of this case.’ ”


Many have been conflicted over the case. Does my right to free speech allow me to attend the State of Union address in our nation’s capital and disrupt the occasion by espousing an abhorrent point of view?


I certainly have a right to say whatever I please about the State of Union address – but not necessarily during the event.


Does the Westboro Baptist Church’s right to free speech allow it to invade the privacy of a family and a community honoring a fallen Marine?


If the court were to have said that the Westboro Baptist Church did not have a right to utter repugnant and disgusting words at a funeral; what next? Would that begin a slippery slope that could later determine that a writer could not pen disparaging words about the president on Sunday – or during a full moon?


Justice Samuel Alito was the lone dissenter against the majority opinion.


As was reported in Explore Carroll, “…Justice Alito, in his dissenting opinion, said Westboro’s protest invaded the rights and privacy of the Snyder family, and went beyond free speech protections. He also chided his fellow Supreme Court members for ‘compound(ing) that injury.’ ”


“Alito wrote that Westboro’s ‘outrageous conduct caused petitioner great injury, and the Court now compounds that injury by depriving petitioner of a judgment that acknowledges the wrong he suffered.’


“‘Albert Snyder is not a public figure… Mr. Snyder wanted what is surely the right of any parent who experiences such an incalculable loss: to bury his son in peace. But respondents, members of the Westboro Baptist Church, deprived him of that elementary right,’ Justice Alito wrote.


“‘In order to have a society in which public issues can be openly and vigorously debated, it is not necessary to allow the brutalization of innocent victims like petitioner. I therefore respectfully dissent,’ Justice Alito concluded.”


McDaniel College professor of political science Dr. Herbert C. Smith said in a telephone interview Wednesday that “(Justice) Alito makes an interesting point. The First Amendment is not an absolute…  As Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes reminded us many years ago – in 1919 – in Schenck v. United States, the First Amendment does not protect a person who falsely shouts fire in a crowded theatre and causes a panic.


“Alito focuses upon the collision of the right to privacy – and free speech. I mean, if a family has any expectation of privacy, it must be at a funeral… Especially a funeral of a loved one who has perished in the service of our country.


“I certainly agree with Alito in this context,” Dr. Smith said.


Although I remain conflicted, I also find Justice Alito’s dissent compelling and persuasive.


Remember, for context, in America, as bewildering as it may seem, we find ourselves in a time and place in our society where school prayer is a crime and pornography is a protected form of free speech.


I have always felt that the right to free speech comes with great responsibilities. Unfortunately, over the years I have witnessed that our civil liberties also indemnifies the rights of individuals to act in an irresponsible manner without any regard to common sense or common decency.


No Supreme Court case in recent memory identifies more significantly that our civil liberties are a two-edged sword. In the case of Snyder v. Phelps, everybody loses and everyone is bleeding. May God have mercy on our great country.


. . . . . I’m just saying. . . . .


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