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Supreme Court Considers Major Free Speech Case

Members of the Westboro Baptist Church picket in front of the Supreme Court in Washington, 06 Oct 2010

Members of the Westboro Baptist Church picket in front of the Supreme Court in Washington, 06 Oct 2010

The U.S. Supreme Court has heard oral arguments in a case that touches on a central dilemma of American democracy; is it ever justified to place limits on freedom of speech? The case involves members of a small church from Kansas who stage anti-gay protests at the funerals of U.S. soldiers and Marines killed in the line of duty in Iraq and Afghanistan.

At issue is the right of members of the small Westboro Baptist church in Topeka, Kansas, to stage protests at military funerals.

Their message is simple, but highly offensive to many Americans, especially the families of service members who have died in the line of duty in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Margie Phelps argued the church's case before the Supreme Court. She is the daughter of the church leader, Reverend Fred Phelps. Their view is that God wants U.S. soldiers to die in battle because Americans have become too tolerant of homosexuality.

Margie Phelps spoke to reporters outside the Supreme Court following the oral arguments.

"God is cursing America," said Phelps. "It is a curse for your young men and women to be coming home in body bags, and if you want that to stop, stop sinning."

The church has about 70 members and is mostly made up of blood relatives. Church members carry signs at the funeral protests with messages that include "Thank God for Dead Soldiers" and "God Hates the USA". Court documents say the group has protested at some 200 military funerals.

Margie Phelps says the activities are protected by the freedom of speech guarantees enshrined in the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.

"The rule of law is that the mere fact that you take offense at words or call yourself having your feelings hurt over words is not enough to shut up the speech," she said.

Pressed by reporters outside the court to address the hurt feelings of the families at the funerals, Margie Phelps and her sister, Shirley Phelps-Roper, broke into song.

On the other side of the case is Albert Snyder whose son Matt was a Marine killed in Iraq in 2006. Snyder says church protesters disrupted his son's funeral in Maryland and denied his family the chance to bury his son in peace.

"Our son, a hero, dead, only to be compounded by the family being targeted and subject to personal attacks, venomous hate and injustice at Matt's funeral," said Snyder. "It is something no family should have to live through."

Snyder sued the Westboro church for intentional infliction of emotional distress and was awarded $11 million in damages, an amount later reduced to $5 million. But an appeals court overturned that judgment, ruling the church protests were permissible under the free speech provisions of the Constitution.

Al Snyder told reporters outside the Supreme Court that church members had no right to interrupt a private funeral with their protest.

"All we wanted to do was bury Matt with dignity and respect," he said. "There is a civilized way to express an opinion in America, but it does not involve intentionally inflicting emotional distress on others and intentionally harming a private citizen at a private funeral. It is not the constitutional right."

Snyder is supported by officials in 48 states and a bipartisan group of more than 40 U.S. senators.

But the Westboro church is supported by numerous media organizations and free speech advocates who fear a ruling in the case could set a precedent for restrictions on freedom of expression. A decision in the case is not expected for several months.

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    Jim Malone

    Jim Malone has served as VOA’s National correspondent covering U.S. elections and politics since 1995. Prior to that he was a VOA congressional correspondent and served as VOA’s East Africa Correspondent from 1986 to 1990. Jim began his VOA career with the English to Africa Service in 1983.