I'm sure you've all heard this story, about Fred Phelps' Kansas church that protests at the funerals of soldiers killed in Iraq and Afghanistan. Members of the Westboro Baptist Church maintain that God is punishing the United States, killing and maiming troops, because the country tolerates homosexuality. They have gained much notoriety for their funeral protests over almost 20 years. The church first gained national attention when they picketed the funeral of Matthew Shepard, a Wyoming student who was murdered in 1998 for being gay. They have also picketed the funerals of and 's mother, celebrated the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, as an act of God's wrath, and have even targeted Santa Claus and the . More recently, they carry signs at soldiers' funerals that say things such as "Thank God for IEDs" and "God Hates Fags."
I believe the actions of Phelps and his church (whose 75 members are drawn mainly from Phelps' family) are reprehensible. Their anti-gay bigotry is highly unChristian, in my opinion, and to use that bigotry to torment the families and friends of soldiers killed in service of their country is vile and disgusting. Their targeting of soldiers' funerals gives them the publicity they seek - that's why they do it.
While I believe the actions of members of Westboro Baptist Church are shameful and ignorant, I also must defend their right to assemble and speak. What they have to say is horribly disgusting, but they have a right to say it. Since their diatribes are against the government and society in general, their First Amendment rights fully apply.
They followed the law, which in Maryland required them to stay 1000 feet from the funeral site. They were on public property. Yes their actions were offensive and caused pain to Snyder's family. But those actions constitute an exercise of their rights to speech and religion and are constitutionally protected.
The author of the First Amendment, James Madison, noted that the purpose of the Amendment was to protect the minority against the majority. This is true if the minority is a foaming-at-the-mouth bigoted extremist. On these grounds, I expect the Snyder vs. Phelps verdict will be overturned on appeal to the 4th Circuit.
What do you think?
Edit: Please note that the courts have limited the right to sue others who are acting to exercise their constitutional rights. Because it is the government's alleged tolerance of homosexuality that the Westboro church members are protesting, they are acting in furtherance of exercising their First Amendment rights when protesting. That they also impact on individuals (the deceased's family and friends) is likely to be found by the 4th Circuit to not be outweighed by the fact that the Westboro group is exercising a constitutional right. A suit like this might be considered a form of a SLAPP (Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation). Generally, a "SLAPP" is a (1) civil complaint or counterclaim; (2) filed against individuals or organizations; (3) arising from their communications to government or speech on an issue of public interest or concern. These suits almost always fail as the defendants are found to exercising their right to free speech. They generally only succeed if the speech is found to be inciting or false.