This week the US Supreme Court ruled that the Westboro Baptist Church can picket military funerals. Fred Phelps, leader of the church, and his merry band picket funerals in order to advance their sick anti-gay religious agenda. Even though their brand of picketing is tasteless and offensive, the Supreme Court was right to rule in their favor.
For the past 20 years, the congregation of the Westboro Baptist Church has picketed military funerals to communicate its belief that Godhates the United States for its tolerance of homosexuality, particu-larly in America’s military. The church’s picketing has also con-demned the Catholic Church for scandals involving its clergy. Fred Phelps, who founded the church, and six Westboro Baptist parishion-ers (all relatives of Phelps) traveled to Maryland to picket the funeral of Marine Lance Corporal Matthew Snyder, who was killed in Iraq inthe line of duty. The picketing took place on public land approxi-mately 1,000 feet from the church where the funeral was held, in ac-cordance with guidance from local law enforcement officers. The picketers peacefully displayed their signs—stating, e.g., “Thank God for Dead Soldiers,” “Fags Doom Nations,” “America is Doomed,” “Priests Rape Boys,” and “You’re Going to Hell”—for about 30 min-utes before the funeral began. Matthew Snyder’s father (Snyder), pe-titioner here, saw the tops of the picketers’ signs when driving to the funeral, but did not learn what was written on the signs until watch-ing a news broadcast later that night.
(d) Westboro addressed matters of public import on public prop-erty, in a peaceful manner, in full compliance with the guidance of lo-cal officials. It did not disrupt Mathew Snyder’s funeral, and itschoice to picket at that time and place did not alter the nature of itsspeech. Because this Nation has chosen to protect even hurtful speech on public issues to ensure that public debate is not stifled, Westboro must be shielded from tort liability for its picketing in this case. Pp. 14–15.
580 F. 3d 206, affirmed.
As long as Phelps follows the normal process for picketing – like staying on public property – then even his offensive speech can’t be censored.
As Blair Scott at American Atheist wrote:
It is easy to get caught up in the emotion and want to deny the Westboro Baptist Church any opportunity to speak their mind and enjoy their Constitutional rights. It is even easier to get swept away in the emotion of a military funeral and want to deny their constitutional rights just this one time or in this one instance. Constitutional Rights do not work like that. What judge or government entity gets to choose when and where your constitutional rights get to be overridden and denied? What does your local atheist group do when you are denied a permit because it might offend someone?
As much as it pains me to say, I agree with the court.