I’m very pleased that the NYTimes gave some space in their Sunday editions for a background story about Fred W. Phelps and his Westboro Baptist Church (WBC) in Topeka, Kansas. [Here] Phelps and his church members are the people who have been loudly demonstrating throughout the country at the funerals of service men who have died in action. The demonstrators have carried hate-filled signs that are anti-gay and anti-American and, I would add, anti-Christian. The Phelps flock are riled up because of the nation’s growing toleration of homosexuality.
Last week the Supreme Court heard oral arguments in a case that involves the WBC and involves questions about the limits and applications of First Amendment rights. The case pits the rights of a group, such as the Phelp’s followers, to shout their hateful views near the funeral of an American soldier who had died in service to his country against the privacy rights of the soldier’s family to mourn in peace. It is hard to imagine a more sorrowful time for the family of a fallen soldier. It is also hard to imagine a more inappropriate or hurtful or intrusive moment to yell offensive slogans, but that is what these Phelps-followers do.
The particular case before the court began on March 10, 2006 when WBC picketed the funeral of Marine Lance Corporal Matthew A. Snyder who had died fighting in Iraq on March 3rd. The Snyder family sued Fred Phelps for defamation, invasion of privacy, and intentional infliction of emotional distress. [Here] A federal jury awarded Snyder’s father a total of $10.2 million dollars. (The judge later reduced the amount to $5 million.)
The WBC appealed and won in federal appeals court. That court ruled that the proscribed area in which the WBC had picketed was legally designated as a place of “protected speech.” The court threw out the lower court’s judgment and ordered the Snyders to pay the court expenses of the WBC.
(An interesting side item: Wikipedia notes that Fox commentator Bill O’Reilly has agreed to cover the Snyder’s court costs of $16,510. pending appeal.)
We all will wait to see what the final decision from the Supreme Court will be. Already some commentators and First Amendment scholars are wondering why SCOTUS granted certiorari in the first place since the Appeals Court seemed to many observers to have settled the issue. [Here] (The Phelps people stayed in the designated, legal area and the funeral attendees probably could not hear their shouts.) What does the Roberts Court have up its black-gowned sleeve? Hasn’t it done enough damage with Citizens United v. FEC? We’ll learn what they have in mind later this year.
A final word about Fred Phelps and the Westboro Baptist Church. Most of the church’s congregants are members of Phelps’s own family. Eighty year-old Fred Phelps has 13 children, 11 of whom are lawyers. (Can you imagine what family reunions are like?) Three of his daughters appeared before the Supreme Court to present the WBC case. The family has a law firm as well as the church, although Fred Phelps was disbarred in 1979. And lest you wonder about the size of his church’s congregation, the NYTimes informs us that Phelps has 56 grandchildren and 5 great grandchildren, although he is estranged from 4 of his children. [Here]
Phelps is a Democrat and has run for public office in Topeka, Not surprisingly, he has never won, but has kept trying. Phelps has been described as “an irritating local gadfly.” Poor Topeka. Fred Phelps is no Socrates.
It will be interesting to see what SCOTUS will rule in the case. Will they use this opportunity to work their conservative will on the First Amendment? Let us hope that Linda Greenhouse will soon enlighten us with an essay.
At least we know one thing: SCOTUS won’t extend the First Amendment to corporations. They’ve already done that....