An interesting case has been working its way through the court system and now will be debated before the United States Supreme Court this fall. The case involves a situation where free speech rights are being weighed against freedom of assembly, rights to privacy, and the mourning process of a loved one.
This scenario originated in 2006, when Albert Snyder was grieving over the loss of his son, Matthew Snyder, a Marine killed in action in Iraq. At the funeral for Cpl. Snyder, members of the Westboro Baptist Church (of Topeka, KS) demonstrated by carrying signs denoting "You're going to hell" and "Thank God for dead soldiers." This group has demonstrated at multiple funerals around the country, in belief that God is punishing the United States for the nation's sin of "homosexuality."
Initially, Snyder sued the church in federal district court and won his case, claiming a $5 million award. However, Westboro Baptist appealed to the 4th Circuit courts, which overturned the lower court's ruling. Moreover, the 4th Circuit maintained Snyder would have to pay for the court costs of Westboro Baptist, a sum totaling over $16,000.
Snyder has since appealed to the United States Supreme Court, which has granted certiorari and the case is scheduled to be argued in the fall. In hearing the case, the Court will determine three crucial questions:
1. Does Hustler Magazine, Inc. v. Falwell apply to a private person versus another private person in a private matter?
2. Does the First Amendment's freedom of speech tenet trump the First Amendment's freedom of religion and freedom of peaceful assembly?
3. Does an individual attending a family member's funeral constitute a captive audience who is entitled to state protection from unwanted communication?
For a full reading of the case's introduction, check out the link for the case of Snyder v. Phelps, et al.
Now, to address the questions of the case ... with respect to question 1, familiarize yourself with Hustler Magazine, Inc. v. Falwell , which essentially dealt with Hustler publishing an offensive cartoon of evangelist Jerry Falwell. In this case, the Court assessed that Hustler's lampoon of Falwell was protected by the First Amendment's freedom of speech, even if the magazine sought to inflict malice with their parody of Falwell because their depiction of the minister was not implied to be true (and even denoted it was false).
So does the ruling in the Hustler case apply to this scenario with Westboro Baptist Church? No, it does not apply. The Westboro Baptist members were unique in the sense that they believe the offensive remarks they were saying and placing on their signs. In the case of Hustler, their offensive remarks are even noted as saying they were not intended to be taken seriously, but as an attempt at humor.
Moreover, it could be argued that Westboro Baptist's actions are not protected as free speech because of precedents in the Court's history, including no free speech protection in cases of "fighting words" (see: Chaplinsky v. New Hampshire) and depending on actual words used by members of Westboro Baptist, it may violate the test standard set forth in Brandenburg v. Ohio.
If Westboro Baptist's actions are considered free speech, they would be, at best, "an inarticulate grunt" (paraphrasing Justice Scalia).
Question 2 presents a more difficult question to determine. Speech and assembly are both specfically mentioned in the Bill of Rights and how does the Court determine which is more significant? The 4th Circuit's ruling for Phelps has implied what it believes, which presents a problem (according to the Supreme Court) because it would leave Snyder and other funeral attendees with no recourse in fighting off those who would violate their rights to religion and assembly.
In this distinct situation, freedom of assembly and religion should trump speech because Phelps and other members of his church went to the funeral for the specific purpose of disrupting the funeral. Phelps' mission was to violate the rights of another citizen, and thus claims the Constitution gives him the freedom to do so.
The mess is further complicated by the fact that this case is between two private citizens and the government is not specifically creating a law or attempting to enforce a law that harms their rights. Can citizens be held liable in the same way as the government?
Question 3 concerns protection from unwanted communication and this seems an easy question. Those attending private funerals should have this protection. The Court upheld a statue in Colorado (Hill v. Colorado) that regulated where free speech could take place. How can there not be a privacy issue at stake here?
Vote is for Snyder in this case. Your thoughts?