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The right to even ugly free speech

Thursday, March 3, 2011; A14

THE BEAUTY OF the First Amendment is often most vibrantly expressed under the ugliest of circumstances. Such was the case Wednesday when the Supreme Court gave its blessing to the insensitive acts of a tiny church that has made a name for itself by mounting protests at the funerals of fallen soldiers.

These are no ordinary protests, laced as they are with the hateful absurdities that have become the trademark of Westboro Baptist Church of Topeka, Kan. Church members typically show up to military funerals wielding signs that read "God Hates Fags" and "Thank God for Dead Soldiers" - reflections of their belief that service members have been struck down as punishment for the country's relatively tolerant attitude toward homosexuality. The inanity of these declarations may be easy for most in the public to ignore; not so for Albert Snyder, whose son, Marine Lance Cpl. Matthew A. Snyder, was killed in Iraq in 2006.

Albert Snyder sued Westboro's founder and several members for intentional infliction of emotional distress and invasion of privacy after they picketed Matthew's funeral in Westminster, Md. Mr. Snyder was not aware of the picketers at the time and learned of their presence only through subsequent media reports. Still, he claimed that this knowledge significantly deepened his depression and exacerbated existing health problems. A Maryland jury awarded Mr. Snyder millions - a judgment later overturned by a federal appeals court and permanently erased by the Supreme Court's decision.

The court concluded that as warped and hateful as the church's protests are, they nevertheless address issues of public interest, including the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and policies involving gay rights and gays in the military. The court noted that laws in most states already set reasonable limits on protesting at funerals, including requirements that picketers keep a certain distance from the ceremony. Westboro gave Maryland law enforcement officials notice of church members' intention to picket; there was no shouting or profanity, and members stayed 1,000 feet from the church. "Westboro conducted its picketing peacefully on matters of public concern at a public place adjacent to a public street," wrote Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. in the court's majority opinion. "Simply put, the church members had the right to be where they were."

In upholding the rights of the members of Westboro Baptist, the Supreme Court - in a surprisingly united 8-1 decision - rightly embraced one of this country's most cherished principles. Speech cannot be quashed or punished simply because it is hateful or expresses an aberrant point of view.

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