Supreme Court to decide military funeral protest case

Anti-gay Westboro Baptist Church picketed at Marine's burial, cites free speech

March 09, 2010|By David G. Savage and Joe Burris | Tribune Newspapers

WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court agreed Monday to decide on the outer limits of free-speech protection for public protests and to rule on whether the family of a dead Maryland Marine can sue religious protesters who picketed near his funeral with signs that said, "Thank God for dead soldiers."

The court's action is the latest twist in a long legal battle that arose out of a funeral in Westminster. The case triggered a multimillion-dollar damage award and attracted national media attention.

A federal jury in Baltimore awarded $11 million to Albert Snyder, whose son Matthew was killed in Iraq in March 2006. He had sued Fred Phelps, the founder of the Westboro Baptist Church in Topeka, Kan., who has traveled the country for 20 years leading protests at funerals for U.S. soldiers. The award was reduced to $5 million.

Phelps claims that God hates the United States because of its tolerance of homosexuality. He and a small group of followers carried protest signs at the funeral in Westminster that said, "Fag troops," "God hates the USA" and "God hates fags."

But a lawyer for Phelps said his protests were not targeted at Lance Cpl. Matthew Snyder, the Marine, but more generally at the U.S. and its military. The protesters were kept at a distance from the church and burial service. Nonetheless, the jury awarded damages to the Snyder family on the grounds that the funeral protests invaded its privacy and intentionally inflicted emotional distress.

In September, the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals threw out the award on free-speech grounds. "Notwithstanding the distasteful and repugnant nature of the words being challenged in these proceedings, we are constrained to conclude that the defendants' signs are constitutionally protected," the court said.

The family appealed to the Supreme Court, saying the protests had "tarnished" Snyder's funeral. "Matthew deserved better. A civilized society deserved better," family members said at the time.

The court announced it had voted to hear the appeal in Snyder v. Phelps and to rule on whether the right to free speech includes the right to intrude on a solemn ceremony. The justices will hear arguments in the fall.

Sean E. Summers, an attorney for the Snyder family, said Monday that while the Phelps family has argued that it was exercising its constitutionally protected freedom of speech, the Snyder family says the protests violated its First Amendment rights to peacefully assemble and practice its faith.

Summers said it would be similar to someone staging protests at a private ceremony such as a wedding. "We're saying that they didn't have a freedom-of-speech right to disrupt a funeral. The reality is that no one has ever targeted or protested a funeral. Even during Vietnam, when there were protests, no one ever targeted someone's funeral."

He added, "Even if you want to stretch the law to say that freedom of speech is more important, it would be different if you had two people arguing on a public sidewalk. But Mr. Snyder was at his own church, and the Phelps family came there to disrupt" the funeral.

Matthew Snyder, a 2003 graduate of Westminster High School, was 20 years old and had been in the war zone for less than a month when he was killed in a vehicle accident in Anbar province.

Albert Snyder, who lived in South Baltimore for 27 years before moving to Westminster and then York, Pa., never saw the seven Westboro members protesting his son's funeral.

But the ensuing news coverage and Internet postings by one of Phelps' daughters about his son disturbed him and deepened his depression, he told The Baltimore Sun. So he sued Westboro, founder Phelps and two of his daughters.

The courtroom fight came down to whether Westboro had a legal right to demonstrate at Snyder's funeral or whether the protesters crossed the line because their message impugned the grieving family's reputation and unlawfully invaded the Snyders' privacy.

The November 2007 decision by a federal jury in Baltimore was the first successful civil claim against the Westboro congregation.

After the verdict was announced, Snyder said he knew that his son would have wanted him to fight and vowed to keep after the Phelps family until the "day I'm not on this Earth. I will hound them for the money so they can't do this to anybody else."

Snyder also said the experience had changed his easy-going manner. "I'm a different person after this experience. I'll speak up and not let people walk over me."

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