The best way to fight Westboro Baptist: Ignore them

Our view: Proposed legislation would only give the group the attention that sustains them

March 10, 2011

Even those, like us, who agree with the Supreme Court's ruling that the despicable protest by Westboro Baptist Church outside a soldier's funeral in Westminster was constitutionally protected free speech have nothing but sympathy for the family of Marine Lance Cpl. Matthew Snyder and the other slain service members targeted by the group. To that end, we sympathize with U.S. Rep. C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger's desire to find a way, within the bounds of the court's decision, to prevent the Topeka, Kan.-based church group's ability to inflict emotional damage on other innocent families in the future. The trouble is, the law he is proposing wouldn't help — and might make matters worse.

On the day of Mr. Snyder's funeral in 2006, Westboro Baptist members — essentially, the extended clan of one man, Fred Phelps — stood near St. John's Roman Catholic Church in Westminster, chanting and waving vile signs as part of their crackpot theory that the deaths of American soldiers are God's punishment for the nation's tolerance of homosexuality. As is their practice, they conducted their protest in strict adherence to local authorities' instructions and restrictions, staying 1,000 feet away from the church. Because they obeyed the rules set up by the local police and because their speech, however nonsensical, dealt with issues of public concern, an 8-1 majority on the Supreme Court ruled they were protected by the First Amendment and could not be sued by Mr. Snyder's father, Albert.

Mr. Ruppersberger has attempted to play by the rules established by the court but to further shield families like the Snyders. He would limit protests to at least 2,500 feet from a funeral and allow them to occur only five hours before or five hours after the service. In drafting the legislation, he consulted a 1984 Supreme Court ruling referenced in the Westboro Baptist decision that upheld the government's right to place limits on protesters, provided the restrictions aren't based on the content of the protesters' speech, that they serve a significant government interest and that they provide alternatives for the protesters.

Although the rule is written to apply in general to funeral protests, there can be no question that it is targeted specifically at Westboro Baptist. A spokeswoman for Mr. Ruppersberger said the congressman has not heard of any other groups picketing funerals and that his hope is that this group will simply go away.

We share that hope, but passing federal legislation to restrict the church's activities is only likely to have the opposite effect. The congressional debate, the presidential signature, and the lawsuit that's bound to follow (notwithstanding Mr. Ruppersberger's efforts to follow the court's instructions) will all serve to keep Westboro Baptist in the news. The Phelps family is full of lawyers, and they have already indicated the intention of challenging state laws restricting funeral protests that are less strict than the one Mr. Ruppersberger is proposing. Enacting a federal law would only give them a national stage.

Furthermore, had the restrictions Mr. Ruppersberger wants been in place before Mr. Snyder's funeral, it's not clear that they would have prevented the emotional damage that became the subject of the elder Mr. Snyder's lawsuit.

By Albert Snyder's admission, he was not aware of the protesters during the funeral. They were 1,000 feet from the church entrance, and they were shielded from his view by a group of bikers called the Patriot Guard Riders. In a letter to The Sun this week, Matthew Snyder's maternal grandparents take issue with the notion that Westboro Baptist disrupted the dignity of the occasion: "Matt's funeral was an occasion of pride and respect," wrote John and Cay Francis. It was only the news coverage of the funeral and later Internet postings by the group that Mr. Snyder says caused his distress. Restricting the protest to an area slightly farther away and at a different time of day would not have kept it off the TV news.

Mr. Ruppersberger's desire to protect military families from Westboro's antics is understandable and commendable, but it only provides the Phelps family with the attention that sustains it. As with the issue of flag burning a generation ago, the solution is not to fight it but to ignore it.

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