Funeral protesters have a free-speech right

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

ON WEDNESDAY, the Supreme Court will hear a case brought by Albert Snyder, the father of a young Marine killed in Iraq in 2006, whose funeral was picketed in a despicable display of insensitivity by members of the Westboro Baptist Church of Topeka, Kan.

Members of this church say they believe that God has ordered the deaths of American soldiers as punishment for the country's tolerance of homosexuals. Seven members showed up for Matthew Snyder's funeral in Westminster, Md., wielding signs that read "God Hates Fags" and "Thank God for Dead Soldiers." Westboro later posted an "epic poem" on its Web site titled "The Burden of Marine Lance Cpl. Matthew Snyder" that accused the Snyders of raising Matthew "for the devil."

Mr. Snyder, who claimed his depression and diabetes were exacerbated by the church's acts, sued Westboro's leader and several members for intentional infliction of emotional distress and invasion of privacy. The church countered that protests were protected by the First Amendment. A jury awarded Mr. Snyder nearly $11 million in compensatory and punitive damages, but a federal appeals court overturned the verdict.

The District, Maryland and 47 other states have filed a brief siding with Mr. Snyder's appeal to the Supreme Court. Only Virginia and Maine had the good judgment to refrain. Mr. Snyder deserves the justices' sympathy, but he should not get their votes.

News reports and court documents show that the protesters abided by police restrictions and stayed some 1,000 feet away from the funeral. A police officer quoted in the Baltimore Sun the day after the March 2006 funeral described the protest as peaceful. Court records also indicate that Mr. Snyder first "saw" the protesters on television, hours after his son's funeral. And he didn't read the offensive "epic" until weeks later, when he was searching the Internet for media reports on his son.

This understandably proved upsetting to Mr. Snyder, but private lawsuits should not be vehicles to quash unpopular ideas or sentiments. Laws in most states already set reasonable limits on protesting at funerals, including requirements that protesters keep a certain distance from the ceremony.

If Westboro's vitriol is deemed unworthy of First Amendment protection and a private citizen can sue to silence the church -- or shut it down -- then everyone's rights will be eroded and made dependent on the sensibilities of others.

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