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US court rules for military funeral protesters

Posted March 2, 2011

— The Supreme Court ruled Wednesday that the free speech provisions of the U.S. Constitution protect fundamentalist church members who mount anti-gay protests outside military funerals, despite the pain they cause grieving families.

The court voted 8-1 in favor of the Westboro Baptist Church. The decision upheld an appeals court ruling that threw out a $5 million judgment to the father of a dead Marine who sued church members after they picketed his son's funeral.

Chief Justice John Roberts wrote the opinion for the court. Justice Samuel Alito dissented.

Roberts said the Constitution's First Amendment shields the funeral protesters, noting that they obeyed police directions and were 1,000 feet (300 meters) from the church.

"Speech is powerful. It can stir people to action, move them to tears of both joy and sorrow, and — as it did here — inflict great pain. On the facts before us, we cannot react to that pain by punishing the speaker," 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."

Alito strongly disagreed. "Our profound national commitment to free and open debate is not a license for the vicious verbal assault that occurred in this case," he said.

Matthew Snyder died in Iraq in 2006 and his body was returned to the United States for burial. Members of the Westboro Baptist Church, who have picketed military funerals for several years, decided to protest outside the church where his funeral was to be held.

The Rev. Fred Phelps and his family members who make up most of the Westboro Baptist Church have picketed many military funerals in their quest to draw attention to their incendiary view that U.S. deaths in Afghanistan and Iraq are God's punishment for the nation's tolerance of homosexuality.

In North Carolina, Westboro church members picketed on Fort Bragg in 2008 after the murders of Army soldiers Megan Touma and Holly Wimunc. They also came to the Army base in Cumberland County in 2007, a particularly deadly combat year for Fort Bragg.

Brandishing signs reading, "Thank God for dead soldiers," ''You're Going to Hell," ''God Hates the USA/Thank God for 9/11," church members typically draw counter-demonstrators, as well as media coverage and a police presence to maintain order.

Fort Bragg soldier Capt. Daniel Whitten was killed in Afghanistan last year. His wife, Starr Whitten, called the Westboro protesters "awful," "disrespectful" and "disgraceful," but said their right to protest is one of the American freedoms her husband died to protect.

"Part of being an American is being proud to support and uphold the Constitution," Whitten said.

The Westboro church did not appear at her husband's funeral. 

westboro Fort Bragg reacts to Supreme Court ruling on Westboro

Wednesday's Supreme Court decision came after Snyder's father Albert filed a lawsuit accusing the Phelpses of intentionally inflicting emotional distress. He won $11 million at trial, later reduced by a judge to $5 million.

A federal appeals court threw out the verdict and said the Constitution shielded the church members from liability.

Forty-eight states, 42 U.S. senators and veterans groups sided with Snyder, asking the court to shield funerals from the Phelps family's "psychological terrorism."

While distancing themselves from the church's message, media organizations, including The Associated Press, urged the court to side with the Phelps family because of concerns that a victory for Snyder could erode speech rights.

Roberts described the court's holding as narrow, and in a separate opinion, Justice Stephen Breyer suggested in other circumstances, governments would not be "powerless to provide private individuals with necessary protection."

But in this case, Breyer said, it would be wrong to "punish Westboro for seeking to communicate its views on matters of public concern."

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  • seriouslyrevoked Mar 3, 2011

    tarheelfan13 I appreciate your sincere effort unlike those silly flames by ncstatepack. It is indeed a good argument you make. Our founders went back and forth about the "basic rights" stuff and they were quite cynical in concentrating any powers to the legislative and trusted the people too work it out. Read Tocqueville Democracy in America for some extraordinary insights into this whole freedom thing. Wisdom is hard won. I too was once a big gov liberal but no more. I trust the bloggers here more than those those interlopers in DC. Don't denounce JoCo's simple but true insight. It is through the small local institutions where freedoms are practiced and where locals learned the wisdom that created this great country. It is better to have a thousand hamlets experimenting democracy than one monolith defining it for us.

  • tonto Mar 3, 2011

    OH by the way if it hasn't gotten through to your brain yet the Supreme Court just hand us ALL the PAPERWORK to ABOLISH THE INSANE HATE CRIME LAW!! Can't wait to start lining up for that lawsuit and I hope you help me get it ready to file it!! So lets get on with it! ASAP!! GOT THAT?? DO YOU HAVE THE SPINE TO STAND UP AND FIGHT FOR OUR RIGHTS???

  • Tarheelfan13 Mar 3, 2011

    JoCo Gun Owner stated: "The further up the chain of government you go, the less power the people have to keep the government in check. That's why it is so important to protect state's rights, and get this horrible incorporation doctrine reversed. Think about it... if you don't like the restrictive laws in Cary, you can move to Clayton, or vote in some representatives that will loosen things up."

    Let me be clear and clarify here that I am talking about basic rights such as freedom of speech and freedom of religion; etc. I am not talking about local ordinances but basic fundamental rights. Basic rights must be protected by higher forms of government and not the whims of a local municipality.

  • NCStatePack Mar 3, 2011

    JoCo Gun Owner, I'm trying to make sense of your ramblings but am finding it difficult. You took tarheelfan's statement about the importance of the federal government protecting our basic rights and twisted it into some silly "Oh no, gubment's takin over my life!" argument. It is the duty of the federal government to ensure that our fundamental rights as citizens of the united states are upheld, plain and simple.

  • Arapaloosa Mar 3, 2011

    "It is actually important that our basic rights are protected by higher forms of government such as federal and state levels."

    The further up the chain of government you go, the less power the people have to keep the government in check. That's why it is so important to protect state's rights, and get this horrible incorporation doctrine reversed. Think about it... if you don't like the restrictive laws in Cary, you can move to Clayton, or vote in some representatives that will loosen things up. But if all the laws in the US are the same, where are you going to go? And it's a whole lot harder to vote in a national representative who thinks like you do. Case in point, the last several Presidential elections. The country is so divided right now, it's sad. To me, the only way to keep the country united is to decentralize power in the government.

  • Tarheelfan13 Mar 3, 2011

    2old2soon stated: "The Incorporation Doctrine transformed the Bill of Rights from a strict limitation on the federal Congress' power over the states, into an unlimited grant of power to the federal courts over the states. Without the revolutionary Incorporation Doctrine, the Phelps case would be purely a local issue. The municipality could have made its own rules and stopped the Phelps group from gathering."

    State constitutions protect freedom of speech so regardless of federal incorporation municipalities are subject and subsirvient to guaranteed freedom of speech afforded by state constitutions. It is actually important that our basic rights are protected by higher forms of government such as federal and state levels. If that were not so then local municipalities could pick and choose what is protected free speech and we would have a "mob rule" form of democracy when it came to our rights as citizens. That frankly wouild be scary.

  • seriouslyrevoked Mar 3, 2011

    "Let us always remember that there are two dimensions to the outrageous distortion of the First Amendment: first, the procedural distortion, which gave the federal courts power over local communities that they were never meant to have; and second, the substantive distortion, which transforms the right of speech, mainly for political purposes, into an limited right of expression." http://www.amnation.com/vfr/archives/018794.html Essentially the federal courts has taken away local municipality's determining what is proper speech and what isn't. In our uber liberal society big brother decides. "The Incorporation Doctrine transformed the Bill of Rights from a strict limitation on the federal Congress' power over the states, into an unlimited grant of power to the federal courts over the states. Without the revolutionary Incorporation Doctrine, the Phelps case would be purely a local issue. The municipality could have made its own rules and stopped the Phelps group from gathering.

  • Arapaloosa Mar 3, 2011

    "Forty-eight states, 42 U.S. senators and veterans groups sided with Snyder, asking the court to shield funerals from the Phelps family's "psychological terrorism.""

    They could still protest SOMEWHERE ELSE. No infringement of freedom of speech.

  • rjernigan6 Mar 3, 2011

    Tarheelfan13 while agree with the decision of the Justices I disagree with what the Phelps' do to get their word out. I'm just saying that if I were to sit on the side of the road and yell and scream at people I'm sure I would be confronted by law enforcement and asked to leave. I'm equally sure that if I didn't leave I would be arrested. I read an article about an associate professor in AZ that was arrested for his sitting and chanting where the shooting took place that wounded Congresswoman Giffords. Tell me how this is any different than what Phelps and his crew does. It should be equal treatment under the law in all circumstances. Part of the problem with this country that I love dearly is the fact that the courts all intrepret things differently. The law is the law. If we can deny the Klan a permit to rally why can't we deny Phelps? We can but choose not to. Here is a link to the article I mentioned http://www.kgun9.com/Global/story.asp?S=14167174

  • Arapaloosa Mar 3, 2011

    Guess we can see who is for excessive abuse of freedom to the detriment of others.

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