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Supreme Court Weighs First Amendment Limits in Military Funeral Protest Case

October 6, 2010 at 12:00 AM EST
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The Supreme Court heard arguments Wednesday in a First Amendment case involving the controversial Westboro Baptist Church group protesting at a U.S. Marine's funeral. Kwame Holman reports.
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JEFFREY BROWN: A high-profile freedom of speech case went before the Supreme Court today in a classic battle of First Amendment rights vs. individual privacy. It was all sparked by an emotionally-charged protest at the funeral of a U.S. Marine.

NewsHour correspondent Kwame Holman begins our report. A warning: This story contains language that may be offensive to some viewers.

KWAME HOLMAN: Members of the Westboro Baptist Church of Topeka, Kansas, gathered outside the Supreme Court this morning, carrying their signature signs and condemning America for its acceptance of homosexuality.

Inside, the justices heard arguments centering on the church’s right to protest at military funerals.

FRED PHELPS, Westboro Baptist Church: By your proud sin, America, you have imperiled your soldiers.

KWAME HOLMAN: Reverend Fred Phelps is founder of Westboro Baptist, and the church is made up almost entirely of his large family. They have traveled the country protesting at more than 200 funerals of service members killed in Iraq and Afghanistan, regardless of their sexual orientation.

Margie Phelps is Fred Phelps daughter.

MARGIE PHELPS, defense attorney: It is irrelevant whether that soldier or any of these soldier was homosexual. The primary point can be recapped like this. When you don the doomed American military uniform today, that stands for one thing in this world: same-sex marriage.

KWAME HOLMAN: Marine Lance Corporal Matthew Snyder was killed in Iraq in 2006. The Phelpses traveled to Maryland to protest at his funeral. They brought signs that read, “Thank God for dead soldiers,” “You’re going to hell,” and others with strong anti-gay language.

Corporal Snyder’s father, Albert, sued the Phelps for intentionally inflicting emotional distress. We spoke with Snyder and his attorney, Sean Summers.

ALBERT SNYDER, Father of Killed U.S. Soldier: The Phelps targeted me and my family by name, and they took away the last chance I had to bury my son, the only chance I had to bury Matt.

KWAME HOLMAN: Today, Margie Phelps defended her family before the court.

MARGIE PHELPS: The rule of law that is implicated whenever someone steps up and says, your words upset me, it’s a longstanding — I mean, as in well over 100 years in the jurisprudence of this nation is that the court will not allow the use of an inherently subjective standard, like outrage, like offense, like annoyance, to punish speech, when the only thing you are claiming is an adverse emotional impact.

KWAME HOLMAN: Twenty-one media organizations, including The New York Times, the Associated Press and NPR, along with the ACLU, wrote the court in support of the Phelps’ First Amendment rights.

MARGIE PHELPS: They asked a whole series of questions, struggling with the obvious. There’s no line that can be drawn here without shutting down a lot of speech.

KWAME HOLMAN: At the court today, Sean Summers argued, funerals are private events, and the family should be free from such a demonstration when mourning the loss of a child killed in service to his country.

SEAN SUMMERS, plaintiff’s attorney: The problem now is, whenever Al thinks about the funeral, he is also going to think about the Phelps, and that is not a lasting memory that anyone wants to have.

KWAME HOLMAN: Snyder initially was awarded close to $11 million by a jury, but, later, a federal appeals court threw out the case. Snyder then went to the U.S. Supreme Court.

MARGIE PHELPS: You can avert your eyes and reject those words. Mr. Snyder needs to stop crying and man up. His conscience is bothering him because he didn’t do right by his son. He is not going to get peace or satisfaction by trying to shred the First Amendment.

ALBERT SNYDER: This is a funeral we’re talking about, for God’s sake. This is a funeral. And that’s what I don’t understand. What kind of society do we want if we can’t even bury our dead in peace. Nobody in the history of this country has ever done this at funerals, no one. And their own expert witness testified to that in court. It is a funeral.

For God’s sake, is nothing sacred?

KWAME HOLMAN: The Supreme Court now will render its decision balancing freedom of speech and the right to privacy.