The Supreme Court heard a very controversial case Wednesday involving free speech rights, what constitutes hate speech, what defines ‘public personalities,’ and a bundle of tough issues wrapped up in the Westboro Baptist church demonstrations near soldiers’ funeral ceremonies.

It is vile. Many cases have. This reminds me of the suit involving the right to burn the American flag. Visceral reaction is repulsion. But legal experts warn us that setting limits in one case expands those limits to other expressions of opinion.

I must admit, I’m having a hard time with this one. Most media coverage accurately refer to this protest as abhorrent, and it is. But what do we do legally in America over extremism legally protected as free speech?

I don’t even want to put snips here of the defense Westboro has made in defense of nothing less than hate speech. Here are some articles covering the case. Judge for yourselves.

While members of Westboro Baptist Church waved a sign outside the U.S. Supreme Court on Wednesday thanking God for dead soldiers, the nine justices inside tried to define the line at which such public protests become personal attacks during arguments in an emotionally charged case prompted by the picketing of a Maryland Marine’s funeral.

Lance Cpl. Matthew Snyder was 20 years old when he was killed in a Humvee accident in Iraq on March 3, 2006. A week later, publicity-seeking members of the fire-and-brimstone Kansas congregation — all strangers to the Snyders — appeared at his family’s Catholic funeral service in Westminster with posters proclaiming sentiments like “God Hates America” and “Semper Fi Fags.” They later posted online a diatribe blaming Snyder’s death on the sins of the country and his divorced parents.

Snyder’s father sued for intentional infliction of emotional distress and initially won, though the multimillion-dollar verdict was overturned on appeal. That series of legal decisions vaulted the Maryland case to the country’s highest court, where it’s testing the boundaries of the First Amendment and putting liberal free-speech advocates in the position of siding with fringe Christians.

They can be fringe anything, but important to understand how really fringe they are.

Westboro’s website says the legal dispute is about the “sovereignty of the Living God” and that those who fail to live up to God’s standards should be punished. Phelps explains that their decision to picket funerals “is to use an available public platform, when the living contemplate death, to deliver the message that there is a consequence for sin.” That sin in their view is homosexuality and all government policies they think support homosexuals.

I’m having a hard time with this, though I understand what’s at stake here. The Westboro group is pushing the limits of the law.

A group of 21 news organizations joined a brief defending Westboro’s case. While calling their views “inexplicable and hateful,” they express concern that a ruling against the church will chill the activities of anyone who wants to speak out on a controversial issue and “threatens to expand dramatically the risk of liability for news media coverage and commentary.”

One of the media groups that joined the brief is Dow Jones whose parent company also owns Fox News.

A bipartisan group of senators including Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., joined in their own brief supporting Snyder. They argue that the church members are “free to convey their repugnant message in virtually any public manner they choose. But they were not free to hijack [Matthew Snyder’s] private funeral as a vehicle for expression of their own hate.”

So, for crying out loud, somebody set limits. They’re getting harder to set.

Supreme Court justices expressed empathy Wednesday for a father whose Marine Corps son was killed in Iraq and whose funeral was protested by fundamentalist pastor Fred Phelps and his anti-gay followers.
“This is a case about exploiting a private family’s grief,” Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg said.

Yet the scope of the justices’ questions during the hour-long session revealed the difficulty of the case and the reality that the court’s previous rulings on free speech make it hard for individuals to claim they have been harmed by even horrific statements regarding public issues.

And they have been horrific.

So here’s where it stand after the first day of hearings on the first case the justices heard, a most difficult one.

[Justice] Alito expressed doubts that bereaved family members could be turned into “public figures” by providing obituary information to a newspaper or expressing pride in a son’s service.

[Defendent] Phelps stressed the wide “umbrella” of protection for “speech on public issues.”

Justice Kennedy said he wanted help “in finding some line” between speech that merits protection and speech that does not.

Wednesday’s case is one of the most closely watched of the term. The courtroom was filled, and spectators spilled into special seats set up in the alcoves. Outside, a handful of Fred Phelps’ followers carried signs with messages such as “God Hates You.”


Groups backing Snyder, including the Veterans of Foreign Wars and 48 states, stressed the need to protect the privacy of grieving military families. Free speech groups, such as the American Civil Liberties Union, say Phelps’ horrific message is exactly the kind of unpopular, offensive speech the First Amendment was intended to protect.

A ruling in the case of Snyder v. Phelps is likely before next summer when the court recesses.

Good luck….and divine providence….on that one.

Sheila Liaugminas

Sheila Liaugminas is an Emmy award-winning Chicago-based journalist in print and broadcast media. Her writing and broadcasting covers matters of faith, culture, politics and the media....