Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Rites of Privacy

The Supreme Court will hear the case of Snyder vs. Phelps in which the family of a dead soldier sued Fred Phelps and his minions for staging a loud demonstration at the funeral.

The funeral protest case is brought by a Maryland father whose son’s 2006 funeral in Westminster was picketed by members of the Westboro Baptist Church in Topeka, Kan. Westboro pastor Fred W. Phelps Sr. contends that the deaths of American soldiers are punishment for the nation’s tolerance of homosexuality and has organized nearly 43,000 protests since 1991, according to the church’s Web site.

Phelps and members of his church — which consists primarily of him and members of his extended family — say they were not targeting Marine Lance Cpl. Matthew Snyder, who was killed in action in Iraq. But they say they have learned that demonstrating at funerals gets the most public and media attention for their message that the nation’s tolerance for gays has resulted in punishment, especially the deaths of American soldiers.

The signs they carried at Snyder’s funeral at St. John’s Catholic Church, made in the Kansas church’s on-site sign shop, included, “God Hates the USA/Thank God for 9/11,” “Semper Fi Fags,” “Thank God for Dead Soldiers” and “Priests Rape Boys.”

After emotional testimony from Albert Snyder that he had “one chance to bury my son, and they took the dignity away from it,” a Baltimore jury awarded Snyder more than $10 million in damages. A district judge cut the amount in half, and then the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit in Richmond threw out the verdict and award.

The reason the verdict was overturned was because the court decided that Mr. Phelps’ demonstration was not directed specifically at Lance Cpl. Snyder but using the occasion to make their hateful point and therefore it was protected speech.

I know this is not an easy case to decide, but I suppose it comes down to a matter of where do one person’s rights end and another person’s begin? A funeral is an intensely private moment and Mr. Snyder and his family most certainly did not invite the public to attend. So Mr. Phelps and his family invaded this moment and clearly deprived the Snyder family of their right to have this moment to themselves even if it was conducted in a public place such as a cemetery.

I’m sure that Mr. Phelps’ attorneys will make the case that they have every right to demonstrate loudly at such an event. And the Court may find that they do. It doesn’t make it right. And I would ask them, how would they like it when Mr. Phelps finally shuffles off this mortal coil and a lot of people show up to loudly voice their approval of his final send-off?