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Westboro and the Constitution

October 12, 2010
By Richard Clark

ESCANABA - Does the Constitution favor wing nuts of the Westboro Baptist Church of Topeka, Kan., over bereaved parents of a Marine killed in war?

In Snyder v Phelps the United States Supreme Court will decide the breadth of obnoxious behavior under the First Amendment. The First Amendment says, "Congress shall make no law abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press"

In 2006 Mr. Snyder's son, Marine Lance Corporal Matthew Snyder was killed in Iraq. Because of the actions of defendants in Synder, LCpl Snyder's family was not allowed the closure that comes with a dignified burial.

Article Photos

Richard Clark

The Westboro Baptist Church of Topeka Kan., targets military funerals to advertise its view that God is punishing the United States with war because America tolerates homosexuals.

For reasons probably only known and understood by the Westboro congregation they picket military funerals to show their distaste of homosexuality.

When the Westboro congregation published its intent to picket Lance Corporal Snyder's funeral it disclosed its contempt for the Catholic Church, the faith followed by the Snyders.

Westboro advertised that it would demonstrate at LCpl Snyder's funeral at "St. John's Catholic dog kennel."

Westboro followers brandished signs that said, "Thank God for Dead Soldiers," and "God Hates You," and "You Are Going to Hell..."

So that Westboro's bizarre positions are held for posterity, Westboro's children march with the adults waiving anti-gay, anti-Catholic and anti-military signs.

Westboro posted a poem on the congregation's website targeting LCpl Snyder's family. It said that his parents raised Matthew for the devil and that they taught him to defy his Creator, to divorce and commit adultery.

The Snyders were not public figures. They wanted a private funeral for their son.

The Snyders sued Westboro. A jury found the Westboro defendants responsible to the tune of $10.9 million. Most of the verdict consisted of punitive damages, a form of damages not available in Michigan. The federal district judge reduced the damages to $2.1 million.

The First Amendment says that Congress shall make no law abridging speech. Congress did nothing here, so why is this a First Amendment issue? The Fourteenth Amendment.

A long time ago the U.S. Supreme Court decided that the Fourteenth Amendment contained language that extended protections found in the Bill of Rights to state and local governments.

Thus, recently, Chicago was found to violate the Second Amendment when it enacted gun control laws.

In the Snyder case the government action was a civil suit. If the Supreme Court finds that Westboro's actions were protected speech the jury verdict will evaporate and undoubted more private citizens will be subjected to vile actions of Westboro.

Not all speech is protect by the First Amendment. For example, you can't shout fire in a crowded theater.

While almost any speech against a public figure is protected, the same is not true of a private citizen.

Writing that President Smith is a thief and an adulterer would be protected as long as the writer had some basis for the writing. On the other hand if someone wrote that Mr. Private Citizen stole money and was having an adulterous affair with a neighbor, the speech is not protected. Mr. Citizen is a not a public figure.

Here is where the Supreme Court may have some room to protect the Snyders. The Snyders were private citizens trying to bury their Marine son in a private funeral. They should be entitled to more protection than, say, Anna Nicole Smith's family.

Westboro probably didn't help its case before the jury by showing a DVD, "Thank God for 9/11," in which members of the congregation celebrated the attacks on our country.

Westboro appealed to the next court, Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals, which overturned the entire verdict. It is a good omen that the Supreme Court has taken up the appeal. If the court was satisfied with the Fourth Circuit's decision it could have left it stand.

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EDITOR'S NOTE - Richard Clark, Escanaba, practices personal injury law throughout the Upper Peninsula. He can be reached at uppermichiganlaw.com/richard-clark.html

 
 

 

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