Wednesday, March 2, 2011

SUPREMES vote on side of Westboro Baptist Church and their Protests

1st Amendment protects military funeral protesters

FILE - In this June 6, 2009 file photo, protesters from Rev. Fred Phelps' Westboro Baptist Church demonstrate during funeral services for Dr. George T AP – FILE - In this June 6, 2009 file photo, protesters from Rev. Fred Phelps' Westboro Baptist Church demonstrate …
WASHINGTON – The Supreme Court ruled Wednesday that the First Amendment protects fundamentalist church members who mount anti-gay protests outside military funerals, despite the pain they cause grieving families.
The court voted 8-1 in favor of the Westboro Baptist Church of Topeka, Kan. The decision upheld an appeals court ruling that threw out a $5 million judgment to the father of a dead Marine who sued church members after they picketed his son's funeral.
Chief Justice John Roberts wrote the opinion for the court. Justice Samuel Alito dissented.
Roberts said free speech rights in the First Amendment shield the funeral protesters, noting that they obeyed police directions and were 1,000 feet from the church.
"Speech is powerful. It can stir people to action, move them to tears of both joy and sorrow, and — as it did here — inflict great pain. On the facts before us, we cannot react to that pain by punishing the speaker," Roberts said. "As a nation we have chosen a different course — to protect even hurtful speech on public issues to ensure that we do not stifle public debate."
Alito strongly disagreed. "Our profound national commitment to free and open debate is not a license for the vicious verbal assault that occurred in this case," he said.
Matthew Snyder died in Iraq in 2006 and his body was returned to the United States for burial. Members of the Westboro Baptist Church, who have picketed military funerals for several years, decided to protest outside the Westminster, Md., church where his funeral was to be held.
The Rev. Fred Phelps and his family members who make up most of the Westboro Baptist Church have picketed many military funerals in their quest to draw attention to their incendiary view that U.S. deaths in Afghanistan and Iraq are God's punishment for the nation's tolerance of homosexuality.
They showed up with their usual signs, including "Thank God for dead soldiers," "You're Going to Hell," "God Hates the USA/Thank God for 9/11," and one that combined the U.S. Marine Corps motto, Semper Fi, with a slur against gay men.
The church members drew counter-demonstrators, as well as media coverage and a heavy police presence to maintain order. The result was a spectacle that led to altering the route of the funeral procession.
Several weeks later, Albert Snyder was surfing the Internet for tributes to his son from other soldiers and strangers when he came upon a poem on the church's website that attacked Matthew's parents for the way they brought up their son.
Soon after, Snyder filed a lawsuit accusing the Phelpses of intentionally inflicting emotional distress. He won $11 million at trial, later reduced by a judge to $5 million.
The federal appeals court in Richmond, Va., threw out the verdict and said the Constitution shielded the church members from liability.
Forty-eight states, 42 U.S. senators and veterans groups sided with Snyder, asking the court to shield funerals from the Phelps family's "psychological terrorism."
While distancing themselves from the church's message, media organizations, including The Associated Press, urged the court to side with the Phelps family because of concerns that a victory for Snyder could erode speech rights.
Roberts described the court's holding as narrow, and in a separate opinion, Justice Stephen Breyer suggested in other circumstances, governments would not be "powerless to provide private individuals with necessary protection."
But in this case, Breyer said, it would be wrong to "punish Westboro for seeking to communicate its views on matters of public concern."
Margie Phelps, a daughter of the minister and a lawyer who argued the case at the Supreme Court, said she expected the outcome. "The only surprise is that Justice Alito did not feel compelled to follow his oath," Phelps said. "We read the law. We follow the law. The only way for a different ruling is to shred the First Amendment."
She also offered her church's view of the decision. "I think it's pretty self-explanatory, but here's the core point: The wrath of God is pouring onto this land. Rather than trying to shut us up, use your platforms to tell this nation to mourn for your sins."
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Gary Kelly said...

When these people make fools of themselves, it's a good thing they do it in public.

JustinO'Shea said...

I hereby exercise my First Amendment Right to vocally dissent from this opinion made by the Supreme Court. . . .
I believe that if I, a young gay man, chose to exercise this same right at a gathering of similar minded bigots desecrating the funerals of gay people and U.S. Service Personnel I would be told to move on, to cease and desist, and if I did not I would be arrested and then likely be held in contempt of court and imprisoned.

I am angry and feel bitter about this decision but I also know, for my own well-being and spiritual purity of heart, I need to avoid toxic environments: persons, places and things.

I wonder if the judges of the Court are unconstitutionally upholding, aiding and abetting treasonous activity against the well-being of the People of these United States in desecrating the funerals of U.S. military persons who died in the service of their country by their signs, mockery and slogans aimed at the United States as they claim to be messengers of a god of their own creation.

On these points I defer to those among us better qualified and versed in the Law than I am. I hope you will make matters clear to me. I too am exercising my first amendment right to freedom of speech and exercise of religion. If I am speaking from ignorance I will change my thinking.

Justin Kevin O'Shea
Provincetown, MA.

Richard said...

As much as I hoped that this decision would be decided otherwise, I had no doubt that this would be the outcome. The only surprise was that Justice Alito (a Bush appointee) dissented rather forcefully. Read the opinion and Justice Alito's dissent for a good education in 1st Amendment law.

Richard said...

For the complete text of the opinion see:

Gary Kelly said...

... as they claim to be messengers of a god of their own creation.

You got it in one, JustinO.

J said...

Distressing as it is, this decision was a foregone conclusion. There's an old saying that tough cases make bad law. Vicious people like the Phelps family members create a great temptation to weaken First Amendment freedoms in this country, but the court obviously knew before the oral arguments were held that an attempt to create an exception here would unleash more mischief than it would ever solve. The majority noted the number of states that have enacted laws requiring buffer zones between demonstrators and the location of the funeral. It will undoubtedly uphold such restrictions, and the rest of us will have to live with that compromise. While the 8-1 decision means this is decision is a jursiprudential no-brainer, the sole dissent of Alito strikes me as a back channel expression of frustration by many on the court with the despicable tactics of Westboro.
One of the flaws in the plaintiffs' argument was that the Phelps family did not attack the dead Marine's survivors and the deceased directly. Had they done so the claim that their action was an intentional infliction of emotional distress might have had enough legs to survive a First Amendment attack on the judgment. But the Phelps family is loaded with lawyers, and they have a very clear understanding of constitutional law and how far they can go. They are the most clever of shakedown artists. Expect them to exercise their newly affirmed rights in the near future, at least until some judgment-proof terroristic martyr fills enough of them with buckshot at one of their demonstrations that they will decide there's no percentage in keeping this crap up. And crap it is. As I've said before, even Jerry Falwell said that what Phelps did at the Shepard funeral had nothing to do with Christianity and everything to do with meanness. Rev. Phelps would be lucky to get a second degree murder conviction when such an accused goes on trial.
The father of the dead Marine who brought this case will be stuck with the costs of the litigation. It will be in the six figures. If any of your readers have something to contribute, we should help to pick up this man's expenses. Bill O'Reilly has offered to pay it in full, but it would be better if this was a national effort, in which the Shepard family and its supporters can join.


These poor soldiers defended their
rights, for these morons to spit
on their dead bodies. What kind
of a God are they suppose to
represent? Sounds like they
are from dysfunctional families,
and need to look-- that they are
laughing at God, whom they
supposedly worship. It sounds
more like the devil. They need
more prayers than the Saintly
dead Soldiers.

jimm said...

Is not a town permit required to parade or demonstrate?

So, lets say the local VFW gets a permit for 2-4PM, which happens to be when the funeral occurs. Effectively shutting out the WBC until after the event.

Im glad the WBC gets lots of publicity. Their foolish actions have the opposite affects, turning ppl away from this cruel hatred.

So sorry for the soldiers family tho. I remember there was a time when a funeral procession drove bye, ppl on the streets would stop whatever they were doing, remove their hats in respect, until all vehicles had passed.

JustinO'Shea said...

Yes, jimm, I remember those days too.
But it is gone. . ."those days" do not exist much any more. . .or only on special occasions.

During the holidays our family went to a funeral in Connecticut. The funeral procession was long, and police were very few. People didn't want to wait for the cortege to pass and began cutting thru the line of funeral cars. . .almost causing accidents. . bad scene.

Our country . . our attitudes have become MEAN. The "old kindness" seems to have died. . .we live in a confused, scared, angry society. . ."I've got mine. F-you!"

One thing that has happened in some part of the country is that large groups of bikers assemble on the day of the funeral and park their bikes all around the area where the Phelps People are protesting. . .The bikers try to block out their signs, their taunts, their very presence. . .out of respect of the deceased military person and his/her family.

When I see determined acts of kindness I cannot but be impressed and moved by that kind spirit. . .

In Atlanta, or somewhere in the South, there is a congregation with an openly gay pastor and his spouse. . .they have no building. The Church meets in the park for Lord's Day worship. Their title is "The Gentle Spirit Christian Church". They are a kind people, open to and welcoming to ALL people in the Park. ;-)

J said...

If only they were all gentle spirits. But my mother, rest her soul, had it right when she said that the veneer of civilization is damned thin.

JustinO'Shea said...

J. . .methinks your mother was a very wise woman.

In my short span...thus far. . .I do not think we've yet crawled that far out of the caves. . .Technologically we may have learned a few good tricks . . .as far as being human. . . we're trying hard but still have much to learn. Witness the driving-home-from-work performances! I hope most of us do not have bows-n-arrows on the passenger's seat! LOL

Gary Kelly said...

I've been studying that young placard-waving woman's face and trying to figure out how on earth she could derive so much pleasure from being so cruel and nasty. And I figure she's a robot... a robot programmed by a madman named Fred Phelps. No rational and reasonable person could behave in such a hurtful and unchristian way in the name of God.

She's a robot, just like the rest of the Westboro Baptist Church congregation. There's no other logical explanation.

JustinO'Shea said...

GARY. . .you are to kind. .. ;-)

Wouldn't you just love to have this message painted om your cheeks?
H8S. . . .God hates? Totally impossible!
Talk about ignorance shown in many ways. . . Pathetic. . .


Stew said...

"God H8s" ... wow!
Unfortunately I've had to deal with these freaks on more than one occation.
Yes, the 1st ammendment gives us free speech. Also, more and more schools offer a zero tolerance rule for bullying. How long will it be before these two things collide in court? Bullys have rights too!
"God H8s".... Great church.

jimm said...

hmmm... so as long as you stand with God, hate crimes are legally acceptable?

What is the WBC doing any different from the KKK burning a cross on someone's front lawn?

JustinO'Shea said...

Well, JIMM, most of them are lawyers, at least the mouthiest of the gang. . .and lawyers can talk their way out of most things. . .just as some can quote the Bible up one side and down the other and make it say things not there, and never intended.

You've met clever peeps like that. . .There is a pious quip, goes like this "Even the devil can quote Scripture. . ." and make it say what he wants it to say. . .

oy vey!

Gary Kelly said...

There is a pious quip, goes like this "Even the devil can quote Scripture..." and make it say what he wants it to say...

True, JustinO... but that applies to everyone who quotes the Bible. Hehe.

Don't mind me... I'm a cynic.

JustinO'Shea said...

I think you are correct. . .hehe. . .we can ALL use the Bible to our own advantage unless we are blessed with a conscience. . . .or something. . .hehe

Cynic. . . hmmm. . .is that another term for a "critical realist" ? ;-)