High court looks at military funeral protests

The Associated Press
Thursday, September 30, 2010; 6:59 AM

YORK, Pa. -- One thing Al Snyder wants to make clear: His boy fought and died for freedom in Iraq, but not for the right of some "wackos" to spew hate at soldiers' funerals under the protection of the Constitution.

"It's an insult to myself, my family and the veterans to say this is what our military men and women died for," Snyder says, barely concealing his anger.

Yet more than four years after the death of his only son, Matthew, Snyder is in the middle of a Supreme Court case that raises almost precisely that issue.

The court is set to decide whether members of a fundamentalist church in Kansas who picketed Matthew's funeral with signs bearing anti-gay and anti-Catholic invective have a constitutional right to say what they want.

Or, in intruding on a private citizen's funeral in a hurtful way, have the protesters crossed a line and given Snyder the right to collect millions of dollars for the emotional pain they caused?

The justices will hear arguments in the case next Wednesday.

The case is shaping up as a potentially important test of the First Amendment. "The difficulty in this case is that the speech occurs at the most personal and sensitive of times," said Cliff Sloan, a First Amendment expert at the Skadden, Arps law firm and the former publisher of Slate magazine.

Margie Phelps, a daughter of the pastor of the Westboro Baptist Church and the lawyer representing her family members at the Supreme Court, said that if the justices reinstate the $5 million judgment to Snyder, anyone who says anything upsetting to a mourner "is subject to a crushing penalty."

But Snyder said in an interview with The Associated Press that if he had the chance, he would tell the justices "that this isn't a case of free speech. It's case of harassment."

Snyder's nightmare began on a late winter night in 2006 when he flipped on the porch light and saw two uniformed Marines standing at the front door of his home in this small south central Pennsylvania city.

He knew right away that Matthew was dead, after just five weeks in Iraq.

He could accept his son's death because Matthew always wanted to be a soldier.

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