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The First Amendment and Funeral Protests: What do you think of the verdict in Snyder v Phelps?

When fallen U.S. soldier Matthew Snyder was laid to rest in 2006, thousands of protesters showed up at his funeral.

The Westboro Baptist Church brought its “God Hates America” message to the service, standing on the outskirts of the cemetery, speaking about how the country’s acceptance of homosexuality has distanced it from God, and every soldier’s death is punishment. They waved signs with lewd drawings and inflammatory phrases like “Thank God for Dead Soldiers.”

According to a Supreme Court ruling handed down yesterday, the Westboro church was within its constitutional rights to do this.

A nearly unanimous vote in Snyder v. Phelps – 8 to 1 – upheld the claim of the church and its pastor, Fred Phelps, that its provocative protest was protected as political speech by the First Amendment to the Constitution.

Writing the majority opinion, Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. wrote, "While these messages may fall short of refined social or political commentary, the issues they highlight - the political and moral conduct of the United States and its citizens, the fate of our nation, homosexuality in the military, and scandals involving the Catholic clergy - are matters of public import."

This is certainly a confusing, troubling area of the First Amendment. The protesters were engaging in hateful speech. Past protests targeted the funerals of homosexuals – including Matthew Shepard, the gay college student who in 1998 was severely beaten and left to die tied to a fence in Laramie, Wyo.

Our emotional reaction might be to say that the church should be silenced by the courts. Maybe you think its message is repugnant and unconstructive; maybe you think it was invading people’s privacy and trying to provoke them by “inflicting emotional distress” (as the Snyder family argued).

But as Roberts said, “As a nation we have chosen a different course - to protect even hurtful speech on public issues to ensure that we do not stifle public debate.”

When Justice Stephen Breyer spoke to a group of high school students in 2008, he said: “You have to draw a line, you have to stick to a line. The line has to be that that free speech is there, not for people we like, and not for people who have popular views, it’s there for people we hate.

“It’s there for the ones who are the most bigoted, terrible, awful – awful! – people you can think of. And it’s there for them because if it isn’t there for them, maybe someday it wouldn’t be there for us.”

Justice Samual Alito was the only one to vote against the Westboro church. He said the decision would only encourage its behavior, which “should be seen as the equivalent to physical assaults.”

“This is the strategy that they have routinely employed - and that they will now continue to employ,” Alito wrote. “Inflicting severe and lasting emotional injury on an ever growing list of innocent victims.”

In an interview with the Washington Post, the church’s lawyer, Margie Phelps, said the group was encouraged to challenge more than 40 state and federal laws that protect funerals from protests.

What do you think?

What do you think of the verdict in Snyder v. Phelps? Do you think the justices ruled correctly? Should the First Amendment protect even groups with hateful messages who protest funerals? If we started removing First Amendment rights, where would we draw the line? What do you think will happen next in the debate on funeral protests? Join the discussion!
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Comments
11/15/2016
Glen Burnie, MD
Amy
Mrs. Punte/St. Philip Neri
Legal, yes. Christian, no. It's not even civilized. Westboro Baptist church is giving a bad name to Christians. What they are doing is against scripture, and as such is UN-Christian. And in my opinion, the justices were mistaken in allowing these protests at funerals. There is a time and place for everything, and funerals are NOT the place for protests.

8/9/2015
fayetteville N.C
Mitzi
seventy-first high
My values say that it is the right of the family to be at peace when laying a loved one at rest and I don't understand Christians violating that scared moment. on the other hand it is the right of citizens to voice their opinions I feel they have the right but that was the absolute wrong place to do so.

12/13/2011
Idaho Falls/Idaho
Justin
Idaho Falls High School
The protests are extremely slanderous to the proud citizens of America who stand up for what they believe in. The same actions could be done to the protesters themselves, saying that god hates them for hating America. If they expect anyone to truly agree with their cause, they are mistaken. Gravely so.

10/19/2011
Sidney, Montana
Tyler
Faulhaber/Sidney High School
People these days are extremly dense and thick-headed when it comes to their own personal points of view on homosexuality. They need to learn some facts before they go and make accusations about God hating America because we are more accepting of hommosexuals. Our soldiers die fighting in a foreign country because they were shot and killed, not because "God is killing our soldiers as punishment for accepting homosexuals," as the protestors would have you believe. They are dense and thick-headed people who need to learn.

10/7/2011
Sidney Mt
zack G
Mrs. Fontana
i think that the protesters have no idea what the soldirs do for them. they give there life for them (protesters) and they just treat with no respect. that is a good way to thank somebody who has died for them to stay that. wow some people need to get there prioritys straight

4/13/2011
Rudyard/MT
Dylan
Mrs. Campbell/North Star High School
Obviously these homophobic protestors don’t remember all the Priest and molestation cases. Maybe that’s what’s killing soldiers, the ones leading church with their sick mentalities. I think they are sabotaging the rights allowing them to protest like pigs. I cannot believe they didn’t realize that those soldiers are risking their lives in order that we have a right to protest at all. Their religion is during into negative paranoia that is hurting this country more than homosexuals are accused of.

4/13/2011
Hingham/ MT
Wendy
Mrs. Campbell/ North Star HS
I think that people protesting out side of a funeral is wrong and i cant belive that no one would stop them not even the U.S Court. Can this church not have the decency to leave the family and friends to morn the loss of another human being wether they and homosexuail of not. And even worse that it is a soldier, who had fought for the freedom of our country. I understand that they are covered by the 1sh Amendment and they have the right to protest and to say what they want because of the freedom of speech. I know that the religons find homosexuality a terriable sin. My religion belives in that but that gives them decency to stand out side someons funeral and protest. It is a complet lack of respect for the dead and their family. And without that soldier fighting for this country and all the belifes and freedoms it provides they would not even have their freedom to protest.

4/7/2011
Irving, Texas
Katy P.
Bradley/Nimitz High School
Although this case was ruled correctly constitutionally, it is morally corrupt. The protesters should have the right to protest, as protected by the first amendment. I think that we should go back over the constitution and re-evaluate how we should be able to protest. We can be convicted of criminal charges for physical abuse, but not emotional abuse? This case is an example of just that. Emotional abuse. There has to be a line drawn somewhere. I think that the protesters should keep in mind that they do have the right to protest, but who is giving them that right? Sacrificing their life for that right? The soldier that died on duty? The one whose funeral that they are at protesting? The protesters are worried about what our country is coming to, and yet here they are protesting at funerals?

3/27/2011
Schuylerville/NY
Nate
Winter/Schuylerville
First off, the protesting at the military funerals absolutely sickens me. What kind of behavior is that? It's just such a lack of morals. Secondly, even though this is provided by the constitution as a first amendment right, the right to free speech, isn't there a provision in the Constitution that states that if the public protest is likely to incite riot then there would be grounds for dismissal? Also, does the supreme court understand that by allowing the members of the church organization to act this way, they are personally condoning the unethical treatment of grieving parents and loved ones, and striking unspeakable amounts of trauma into an already awful experience.

3/25/2011
Indianapolis, Indaina
Jia
Ben Davis High School
The protest that the Westboro Baptist Church brought to the funeral was protected by the First Amendment in it being in their righ to the freedom of speech. We can't sacrifice the well being of America to please a certain group of people. That is an alternate possibility of the Snyder v. Phelps case if the court had decided differently. Our feelings cannot dictate whether certain laws can be made and whether something that is protected by the Constitution should be changed. Logic over feelings.

3/25/2011
Indianapolis/IN
Devin
Singleton/ BDH
theres not much to say in my poinion. Our Constitutional rights are there and theres nothing we can do about it. If poeple use it to hurt others then we punish them but only if they eceed others' rights. So yes the priest had the right to protest at a funeral, however i will state that people need to think before acting and do whats moraly right. Would you like it if someone came to your relatives funeral and made accusations and said hurtfull things only throwing salt into the already existing wounds? people need to have ethics. But as i said he did have the right to do so.

3/25/2011
Amsterdam, New York
Danielle
Amsterdam High School
Everyone is entitled to free speech, no matter how hurtful that speech may be. Taking this into account, the Supreme Court's ruling was the right one. The words of the Westboro Baptist Church are those filled with evil and hate, but they do fall under the protection of free speech. Their words are highly offensive and outrageous, but yet we must realize are just words. What we feel is morally wrong cannot overpower what is written in the Constitution.

3/25/2011
Amsterdam/ New York
Caitlin and Danielle
Palczak/Spagnola/Amsterdam High School
Due to the first amendment, it is hard to rule against the protestors with their freedom to speak however they want. The judges on the Supreme Court really have no choice but to stay close to the original means of the constitution. However, when it comes to funerals we believe that is disrespectful to the families who are mourning and should somehow find a way to do away with it. Where as a state might rule it constitutionally justified, counties in the state have the power to make up a law regarding the situation. As two practicing Roman Catholics, we strongly disagree with Fred Phelps in every way and that he does NOT represent the Christian religion at all. Face it, Fred Phelps and his followers have a problem with homosexual people and have no regards to how military people are fighting for their safety every day. I agree with Dennis N. from Irving, Texas, that the case's verdict was constitutionally correct; the overall situation is morally incorrect. I want to protest at Fred Phelps funeral.

3/23/2011
Pocatello, Idaho
Kyle
Pamela Peck Highland High School
My mom who is a government teacher was talking about this case with her class the other day. As she shared the comments from the students and her responses I asked her how can she support the actions of these protesters. Her reply was simply...as an american, who believes in the constitution, one of the hardest tasks we will face is defending the rights/actions of others we disagree with even when their ac tion opose to the very core of our being.

3/10/2011
Greencastle
Zach
gahs
I think that the Westboro Baptist Church is wrong in every way. I think their beliefs are crazy because I do not believe that God would have soldiers die because of homosexuality. They are just trying to get the American public to turn on homosexuality. According to Warren Richey, in an important reaffirmation of free speech principles, the US Supreme Court on Wednesday ruled that noxious, highly offensive protests conducted outside solemn military funerals are protected by the First Amendment when the protests take place in public and address matters of public concern. Although what the Church says is protected by the constitution it is just wrong that they go to a place where people are gr

3/9/2011
Irving/TX
Dennis N.
Bradley/Nimitz
I believe that the final verdict to Snyder v. Phelps was constitutionally correct but morally incorrect. The First Amendment does protect and should protect groups with hateful messages but protesting in a funeral is just downright wrong and unmoral. The first amendment guarantees a numerous of rights to groups and individuals but actions such as this ruins the right that is given which concludes to a discussion and debate over the removal of it. If the removal of the first amendment was to come true then the United States would no longer be unique to most other countries. Many people immigrate to the United States mainly because of the rights the first amendment gives. However if the remova

3/8/2011
Irving/Tx
Richard L
Bradley/Nimitz
I believe that the verdict in Snyder v. Phelps is the right call if your following the rules or the constitution, but I believe it is morally wrong. It is morally wrong to make fun of the dead by protesting hurtful criticism to the homosexuals and the soldiers. How will they feel if I protest on their graveyard and criticized their deaths? So, I believe the justices have made the right call if they are following the supreme laws. What I think about the first Amendment is that it shows freedom because people have the right to say anything to anyone without being punished, and there is nothing wrong with freedom. However, some people believe that it gives to much freedom because it could becom

3/8/2011
Irving, Texas
Josh A.
Bradley/ Nimitz
I think protesting at funerals is similar to the burning of the American flag. The fact of the matter is since Johnson's right to burn an American flag was preserved in Johnson vs Texas, so why shouldn't these protesters have their rights protected as well? It is a very touchy issue, but the principle was basically dealt with in Johnson vs Texas. Honestly, If the ruling had gone the other way, it would have contradicted the ruling in Johnson vs Texas. I do agree with the article when it says the 1st Amendment is to protect the most hated people in society. Also, I agree with the fact that if you suppress a group one day, your group may be suppressed the next day.

3/4/2011

Kelsey
GAHS, Greencastle, PA
I think that protesters should not be allowed to show up to funerals for protesting purposes. Yes, the first amendment does say we have the freedom of speech, but I do think that personal family matters such as funerals should be off limits for protest. If the Westboro Baptist Church wants to blame the deaths of soldiers on the acceptance of homosexuality and protest about it then that’s fine, but they should do it somewhere other than a funeral where loved ones of the deceased soldier are mourning. According to www.csulb.edu/~csnider/Poets_Against_the_War.html the US has spent more than $200 million to recruit and train new personnel to replace the troops who were “openly gay,” so obviously the claim made by the Westboro Baptist Church that the acceptance of homosexuality is the reason for the death of our soldiers is false since the “Don’t ask. Don’t tell.” Policy is hardly acceptance. That is why I believe protesting should not be acceptable at the funerals of our fallen soldiers.

3/4/2011

Zach R.
Greencastle-Antrim highschool, Greencastle,pa
So, I strongly believe that this decision was one of the worst by the Supreme Court. The fact that this man served for our country and gave his life to protect our country from all threats foreign or domestic should have given a push to decide against Phelps. Even thought it is the first amendment of free speech these people should not have protested the way they did. I do not care if it is the first amendment that allows these people to protest at funerals of deceased U.S. military personnel it is wrong and disgraceful. These protesters were and just as bad as the racist groups with their hatred and discrimination of people with alternate lifestyles. With 82% of active duty casualties in Iraq and with a war in Afghanistan we need to step up and ban the protest at military funerals or even at veterans’ hospitals. In conclusion, these protesters are ignorant and wrong they need to be knocked down a notch to give not just our military but all of the people in our country foreign or domestic the respect they deserve.

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