Westboro Baptist Church is evil, but it may win in high court

Very soon the U.S. Supreme Court will issue a decision in Snyder v. Phelps. Every decent human being finds Phelps loathsome and repulsive, but the snakes might prevail with the high court. As much as I hate to admit it, that’s probably for the best.

Phelps is the Westboro Baptist Church, a clan of sorts that goes around the country insulting grieving families of U.S. soldiers. Its strange doctrine alleges that God is so angry at America for abortion and other ills that He delights in the death of servicemen and servicewomen. The clan’s signs include jeers designed to deliberately hurt family members and friends of the dead. The group is also very anti-gay and lesbian, frequently using a slur for gays.

A few years ago, Albert Snyder, father of a slain Marine, sued The Phelps family for intentional emotional distress after the clan protested — from a distance — at his son’s funeral. Snyder won and was awarded about $5 million — a sum that might bankrupt Westboro — but it was overturned on appeal. The high court will make the final decision. Read

What is at stake here is freedom of speech versus intention of inflicting emotional distress via public speech. Last fall, when the case was being heard, the justices were unanimous in their disgust for the Phelps, but concerned about punishing their speech. Justice Elena Kagan wondered if a ruling against the Phelps would require that signs at demonstrations be pre-approved.

This case reminds me of a 1970s’ case in Skokie, Ill., where American Nazis wanted to march in Skokie, a suburban town with many Jews. Eventually, the courts ruled the Nazis, however despicable they were, had the right to march. The case was huge; the march inconsequential (I can’t even recall if it even occurred).

The best way to combat non-violent speech in the public sphere is with more speech and rules on where speech can be. The Westboro Phelps’ creeps have to stay a reasonable distance away from funerals. To rule against the Phelps would offer them attention they do not merit. The court will likely rule against a good man, Albert Snyder, who has a good reason to resent some very evil people. But we accept those results occasionally to live in a free nation.

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37 Responses to Westboro Baptist Church is evil, but it may win in high court

  1. TV says:

    In cases such as these, I believe in three things:
    1. freedom of speech
    2. the responsibility of the courts and police to protect people’s free-speech rights
    3. and the correctness of a well-tossed rock to the head of any of those creepy Phelps figures. (Yes, I’m a bleeding-heart liberal, but I never said I was a pacifist.)

    In other words, sure, I’m all for the Constitutional right of anyone to prove loudly that they are morons; I believe, too, in my duty to plant my fist in their faces. So, arrest me. If that’s the worst law I’d ever break, the world would be a pretty good place still, and maybe even a better place.

    NOTE: What about “fighting words”? I mean, you can’t say the FU words to someone and claim free-speech right when they crack you in the nose. But you can say to a grieving family that you are happy their son died fighting for his country (“their” country too, btw)? I think those words might bring me to “fighting” turf than any FU ever heard.

    Doug, that why “I” learned to box!!!!!!! (that was a joke.)

  2. Howard Ratcliffe says:

    “I indeed baptize you with water…he shall baptize you with the Holy Ghost, and with fire” Mat 3:11 Why not ignore their ranting and ask Jesus Christ for the real Baptism of the Holy Ghost! Water has never cleansed Sin; only Living Water can do that.

  3. Jim W says:

    I hate Illinois Nazis, but the decision to allow them to march was a straightforward application of the Bill of Rights. They weren’t to be prevented from marching. (As I recall, they called it off. They considered the uproar they’d caused a Mission Accomplished.)

    Suing someone after the fact is a different situation. Phelps’ group committed an act of emotional distress, and though that may not be a crime, it was deemed an injury by the lower court. You are free to say what you choose, but not free from repercussions. Sometimes that’s just bad publicity. But it can be more.

    I do believe, though, that the answer to bad speech is more speech. I know in at least one event the Freedom Riders, and Patriot Riders, have shown up as invited guests to assist in diminishing the influence of the Phelps crowd. I could also see a (judicious) use of sympathetic “flash mobs” to counter the Westboro Effect.

  4. hawg says:

    I still maintain that the first amendment right to free speech does NOT preclude a broken nose.

  5. Steve says:

    There are times, like this, when supporting the First Amendment can make you wince. But it’s these times when you need to support it the most.

    The best way to fight ignorant, hate-filled speech is with the kind of speech that points out what morons these sleazy hatemongers really are. (Though I have to admit that the thought of a bankrupted Westboro Baptist Church does bring a wee smile to my lips.)

  6. Midwinter says:

    I am pretty convinced that the entire purpose of the Phelps clan is to provoke people into violating their 1st amendment rights so that they can sue.

  7. xya avium says:

    lol…they think all those people are going to hell when in reality they’re the people going to hell!
    i feel bad for the kids…they don’t really know what they’re being raised into. their parents are horrible people for bringing up these beliefs.
    i would be very happy if the whole world made a mini holocaust for them. they totally deserve it.
    it would be great if they recorded it and made a tv show out of it! omg that would be the world’s best comedy show!

  8. cb says:

    The westboro babtist is not a “church”, it is a hate group. They are in it for the money and the press. Most of the members of this “church” are attorneys, so they get away with this. Any one can say they are a “church”, that is not going to make you a Church! This is not about freedom, it is about being human. There hate is a way for them to make money, by bringing a Lawsuit against people THEY have provoked. They are running a “church” scam. But, add a bit of crazy on the side just for show.

  9. Garro says:

    Hey guys. First of all, I feel for the Synder family. I know what it is like to lose a loved one so I can empathize with them. But I think we need to look at the facts here. The Church was over 500 feet away from the funeral, no one at the funeral saw or heard the church while the service was going on. They were within their rights and it’s not there fault people insist on bringing attention to them.
    I think the best option for dealing with the Westboro Baptist is to ignore them entirely. Giving them attention is giving them what they want and the more hatred people show them only confirms them in their beliefs.

  10. Benjamin J. Browning says:

    As difficult as it is to watch and listen to the rantings of the Westboro group. I must conclude they are well within their rights under the First Amendment. However I do believe that some minor restrictions will be placed on their conduct by the Supreme Court.

    With that being said, could a adverse ruling stop Westboro? I do not believe it will, any ruling the Supreme Court writes will be very narrow and brief in it’s scope. Westboro will simply make a few minor changes necessitated by a adverse ruling continue with business as usual.

    In my opinion, there is only one way to bring a halt to the antics of the Westboro group. Simply ignore them!!

  11. Bob Becker says:

    Doug… and Steve… and most of the rest posting above got it right. The most despicable among us have exactly the same constitutionally protected liberties that the rest of us have. And if we can’t protect those rights for them [American Nazis, Westboro Church, etc.] we will not, in the end, be able to protect them for the rest of us.

  12. underdog says:

    Rev Phelps speaks the truth, you queers may hate him, but he is one with the Lord Jesus Christ!

    • Steve says:

      Hmmm. What’s that under the bridge? It’s over-sized, over weight, overly hairy, warted and moled, and it’s got a finger buried in its nostril up to the second knuckle. Well! I’ll be! It’s a troll! Best not feed it.

      • Read The Word and the Constitution says:

        There is very little difference between the Westboro group and the homosexual group.
        1. They are both small and very vocal, trying to get publicity for their cause.
        2. Both are condemed in the Bible for what they do, one for descention andhate mongering and the other for their lifestyle choices.
        The only difference is the Westboro group is protected by the original Bill of Rights and the homosexuals choices in being homosexual are not protected in the original Bill of Rights. However the homosexual group has exercised its right of speech long enough that our Government has caved in to include them in a protected status.
        Is it right to protect them both? Yes, by our government, but God has already made it very clear, both groups choices and actions are wrong.

        • Ya sure says:

          It is not god who wrote the bible,but merely men. And the one bible verse spoken against homosexuals,in Leviticus was added in the 1930s.

  13. Pingback: DADT, BDUs, and freedom « Works of Literata

  14. ScottH says:

    The Phelps “ministry” is indeed despicable. But it is not so awful as to justify throwing out our vital tradition of free speech.

    While the actions of this “church” are nasty, I’d suggest a review of Matthew 5:43-47. Jesus offers what might be the best solution of all to such problems.

  15. joe says:

    I bet Snyder wins, this is a civil law suite regarding tort law. This was a targeted attack on a private family, Snyder knew they were there he saw the tops of the signs, do you think the court expected him to leave his sons body to go read the trash. The slippery sloppe goes both ways. God Bless You Mr. Snyder take the trash out!

  16. Agnostick says:

    I’ve asked this before, in other places…

    Do these rights come with any responsibilities attached? If so, what are they?

  17. Sue says:

    I am with Joe, SCOTUS took this case for a reason, the 4th curcuit screwed up big time. There is no such thing as absolute free speech and I for one have no problem limiting hate speech at a funeral. Go Al Snyder

    • Agnostick says:

      Sue, that’s kind-of my point. Nobody, not even Snyder, is asking that the cult (or anyone else) be silenced. Snyder isn’t even asking that hate speech be limited at funerals.

      If I understand correctly, Snyder is asking that he be allowed to collect monetary compensation on any and all damages suffered by him and his family, because of the cult’s negligent, callous, and careless exercise of their free speech.

      I may be the most law-abiding person in the county… as well as a respectful, skilled, and experienced hunter. Suppose one evening I accidentally shoot my neighbor’s prized horse–is that neighbor not entitled to some sort of damages? It was an accident, I have no criminal record, so I’m not about to lose my hunting license and/or firearms–I retain my full 2A rights. But the neighbor is entitled to compensation, just the same. I still have to take responsibility for my actions–don’t I?

      I may be wrong, but I think that’s the question before SCOTUS. That, and perhaps one more: Will the expectation of responsibility have a “chilling effect” on the exercise of those rights?

  18. Bob Becker says:

    Agnostic:

    The only damages to collect on here are hurt feelings. Not at all the same thing as claiming compensation for a horse accidentally killed, or deliberately killed for that matter.

    The problem is this: if the Westboro loons can be fined for saying what they said at the funeral [without actually disrupting it; they were nearly a football field away, or close to it], the courts will be punishing them for the content of their speech, the message they wanted to convey. [Someone standing in the same place holding signs saying "God bless our troops!" and chanting the same would not be subject to similar punishment.] Putting the government [courts or any other branch] in the business of deciding on the basis of its content whether expressive speech is punishable or not is a dicey business.

    Government can of course, do that, but only under very very limited circumstances: the classic example, you can’t cry “fire” in a crowded theater. You can’t threaten someone with death, etc. But the government is not permitted, nor should it be permitted, to pick and choose which political speech [and that's the kind of speech the Westboro loons were engaged in] is acceptable and protected and which is not.

    They’re a small band of despicable nuts and bigots, but there’s a big principle involved, and they’re on the right side of it: they are free to speak on this matter as they wish, and no one has an enforceable right not to be offended by speech — theirs or anyone else’s.

    They break a law — trespass, obstruct free passage of the roads, threaten anyone, etc. — nail the SOBs and lock ‘em up. But not for merely expressing their unpopular and despicable ideas.

  19. pete says:

    Bob, You can’t be for real, hurt feelings! you can’t possibly have any children, much less buried one ! You also need to read the transcripts from the trial. This case is about Tort Law not free speech. your first mistake is that the Westboro cult was not a football field away, even after the funeral was re-routed because the cult positioned themselves 25 to 30 feet from the main vehicle entrance the protesters came with in 200-300 feet of the procession. Your second mistake is they did interrupt the funeral. Two days before the funeral westboro sent out an announcement to law enforcement and media, their announcement had a picture of Matthew Snyder on it that read they would be protesting at Saint Johns Catholic Dog Kennel, because of this announcement, the Snyders had to have a swat team , state police , local police , a command central station set up in the form of a Winnebago, and all kinds of emergency equipment, not to mention media coming out of the woodwork. THAT’s NOT AN INTERRUPTION! This was a private funeral for a private family , the Phelps targeted a private family. Then there was the internet posting. The trial judge called it right, this was harassment before , during and after the funeral.

  20. Bob Becker says:

    Pete:

    I have three children, and happily I’ve not had to bury any of them. I hope never to know that that’s like.

    If they came within “with in 200-300 feet of the procession” they were then a football field away, or close.

    If the police deemed the Westboro loons a potential threat, and brought along swat teams, etc. that was their call. It seems none of that was in fact necessary. [No violence occurred so far as I know.] The Snyders did not “have to have” a swat team present, etc. [I don't think the Westboro loons have a record of violence at their protests, do they?] If authorities chose to err on the side of caution, that was their decision which I have no intention of second guessing with the possible exception of having a swat team there. But no violence that I know of occurred — possibly because of the visible police presence, possibly not.

    They’re loons, the Westboro crowd, with the manners and sensitivity of pigs. On that we can agree. But they did not disrupt the funeral, they stayed on property the public had access to [not private property], they did not so far as the reports said obstruct traffic or disrupt the burial. I am in no way defending what they did or what they said. But from what’s been reported in the press, they do not seem to me to have gone beyond what the law protects as free speech, and are being sued because they hurt the feelings of the soldier’s family, which I have no doubt they did. My point is, I don’t think that should be actionable.

  21. The people of this nation are brutish, Bible-and-otherwise-illiterate, and completely unthankful. Rather than rejoice that the Bread of Life is on your streets — and you are still alive and can still mourn for your sins and repent — you roil about in rage against God. When the testimony of the Westboro Baptist Church is complete in this nation, THIS NATION IS DONE. Said another way: Westboro’s go time is doomed-USA’s blow time. For 20+ years we have kindly entreated you to put away your filthy manner of life, and obey the Lord your God. You waxed worse with the years. Now it’s too late.

    Meanwhile reality check for you rebels: A million “professors” and “scholars” and “editors” can blather about what SCOTUS is going to do or should do as it pertains to the Church of the Lord Jesus Christ by name of Westboro Baptist Church in this generation. SHUT UP; IT’S NOT YOUR CALL! The Lord God of Eternity holds the hearts of those justices in HIS HAND ALONE — and what they do will be for His glory and for the honor and good of His servants. So get over yourselves, hush, and watch God perform a marvelous, peculiar and amazing work right before your blind eyes!

    The duty of all mankind is forever the same: Fear God and keep His commandments!

    Margie Phelps
    Westboro Baptist Church

    • Tony J says:

      I hope that I am in town for your next protest Margie. I would love to come and give you the “present” that you and your family truly deserve.

    • Agnostick says:

      Margie, Ms. Stutzman called… can she have her husband back now, please?

    • Messenger says:

      Margie,

      You are a sinner and you will be judged.

    • Jim W says:

      Wow – telling people to shut up? Free speech for thee but not for me?

      Color me unsurprised.

    • Steve says:

      “I’m right, you’re wrong. Shut up.” The awesomeness of your rhetoric is awesomelicious. Let me try it out: “No, I’m right, you’re wrong. Deal with it, bigot.” Oooo. I feel made of awesome. (When public debate devolves into something a sixth grader would roll his or her eyes at, you can bet the Phelps cult is involved in it.)

  22. Tony J says:

    It would be nice to drive by with high powered paint ball guns while they’re picketing the next funeral. Oh did I mention that the paintballs should be frozen?

  23. Alex says:

    If all the Westboro Church members strongly hate this country then they should move to another country. What the hell are they doing here with all that hate.

  24. Doug Gibson says:

    The Phelps won in the Supreme Court by an 8-1 vote; not surprised, hate also has free speech rights. http://hosted.ap.org/dynamic/stories/U/US_SUPREME_COURT_FUNERAL_PROTESTS?SITE=AP&SECTION=HOME&TEMPLATE=DEFAULT&CTIME=2011-03-02-10-27-23

  25. Gary says:

    Well, let me use my free speech, I was thinking someone in the Phelps compound must have been gay and died of aids or something.
    I can’t believe any American living in the United States of America would have the gull to protest an American Soldiers funeral after fighting for their freedom. I guess The westboros don’t have to worry about terriost, I’m sure they are eating it up. Maybe the westboros are terriost ….I really can’t believe this is really happening. I am really disgusted with it all! I hope they all burn in hell!!!
    God bless America!

  26. Gina says:

    While they should not be denied free speech, their unbelievable sick hate is astounding. This is clearly NOT a church, and certainly not Baptist. These people are evil, yes. These people have sick minds, yes. These people are the lowest example of humans, yes. These people hate America. The people they protest have died to preserve their right to their disgusting ree speech. They will meet their fate with the devil in hell. The sooner the better. What makes people so sick and sickening. I personally would like to see someone rid the gene pool of them.

  27. Jehovah’s Witnesses pursued court decisions to get in your face at the door steps,these same actions uphold rights of infamous hate church.
    —-
    Danny Haszard http://www.dannyhaszard.com
    my page more on Jehovah’s Witnesses harassment

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