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.