The First Amendment will be the focus of both parties when oral arguments are heard in front of the U.S. Supreme Court this month. In the case of Snyder v. Phelps, a family’s freedom to have a peaceful funeral for their son, a fallen Marine, will be pitted against a church’s freedom to speak their controversial viewpoints through a protest.
Phelps is the leader of a rogue church made up of members who believe that God is punishing the United States because the country and its military tolerate homosexuals. The church believes that Sept. 11 and the wars in which the U.S. is involved in the Middle East are punishments from God due to this tolerance. When Phelps learned of the Snyder funeral, he organized a small protest to express his church’s views at the funeral, exercising what he believed to be his First Amendment right. They brought signs including slogans of “Thank God for dead soldiers,” “Semper fi f*gs” and “You’re going to hell.” After the funeral, he posted something called an “epic” on the church’s website criticizing Snyder and his family for raising a soldier who fought for the United States.
A trial resulted in a judgment in favor of Snyder and against Phelps for more than $10 million. Phelps subsequently appealed, and the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals overturned the jury verdict, finding that Phelps’ speech was protected by the First Amendment. Snyder has appealed that decision and the Supreme Court will hear the oral arguments of both sides.
Both sides are making a First Amendment argument. Most would agree that the speech is extremely offensive and, to most, disgusting. However, the 4th Circuit found that, even though the speech was terribly offensive, the speech was protected by the First Amendment.
The First Amendment protects, among other things, the freedom of speech. Generally, the government cannot stop someone from speaking their mind, unless their speaking infringes on someone else’s rights to the point where the government must intervene. Also generally, the government can limit speech through what is known as “time, place and manner” regulations. For example, the government may pass a law forbidding any protest within 500 feet of any funeral procession (many states have passed similar laws as a result of funeral protests such as this one), but the government may not pass a law forbidding a particular type of speech or viewpoint while allowing others.
The 4th Circuit was of the opinion that, if the courts were to find Phelps liable to Snyder due to his speech because it was so wildly offensive, it would open the door for many to sue others because they find their speech offensive. Basically, where would we draw the line? We will have a much better idea of where that line is after the Supreme Court makes their ruling.