Opening arguments and initial questioning began in the Supreme Court case Snyder v. Westboro Baptist Church Wednesday. The case was filed by Albert Snyder, the father of a fallen U.S. soldier, against the Westboro Baptist Church and its leader, Fred Phelps. Snyder alleges that the church members inflicted emotional trauma upon him and other mourners. The allegations stem from the funeral of his son, Lance cpl. Matthew Snyder, in 2006. The church held an anti-gay protest outside the funeral, as well as posting video of the event on their website with further harsh accusations and religious condemnation of his son.
According to The Miami Herald and others who witnessed the day’s arguments, the Westboro Baptist Church is maintaining that the video and protest are protected under the First Amendment, which guarantees the right to freedom of speech and freedom of assembly. Snyder, on the other hand, argues that freedom of speech and assembly do not apply in this case because it was a private funeral, and the church members inflicted intentional emotional harm aimed specifically at him and his family.
Should the court rule against the Westboro Church, the implications are huge. The court would be adding an exception to the right to freedom of speech, particularly in regards to the Internet, where the larger part of Snyder’s case against the Westboro Church rests. They also would potentially be defining new criteria for deciding where public protests cross into personal attacks, according to the Baltimore Sun.
Depending on which media outlet you ask, the Court seems primed to do so. The Miami Herald doesn’t agree, and reported that Margaret Phelps, lawyer for the defense and daughter of Fred Phelps, who runs the Westboro Church, appeared unfazed by having to defend her Church’s, and in large part, her family’s actions before the Supreme Court. The Court questioned her extensively about privacy and other matters that have been brought to bear in this case, all of which she answered, only occasionally slipping into religious rhetoric.
Floyd Abrams, a lawyer who specializes in First Amendment law, told Newsweek that he didn’t think the court would rule against the Church either, not because Westboro is right, but because of the future impact on other cases. Even he expressed doubts, however, because the Court chose to take the case in the first place, which they didn’t have any reason to do necessarily. The line of questioning this morning also seemed to indicate that the Justices were looking for where they could draw the line on what Westboro is doing without making a First Amendment exception to do it.
Hate speech has been protected by the Supreme Court in the past, so if Snyder is going to win his case against Westboro Church, it will have to be on the grounds of privacy and misuse of the Internet. The Court won’t rule against the Church’s freedom of speech, and the Church apparently so far has always conducted their protests in line with individual state’s laws. It will be up to the Court to decide if targeted Internet harassment is protected as well. If they decide it’s not, expect to see a raft of lawsuits stemming from Internet bullying and other forms of specifically targeted cyberattacks.
Garrett Epps, “Westboro Baptist Church’s Surreal Day in Court.” TheAtlantic.com
MIchael Doyle, “Westboro attorney unflappable in Supreme Court arguments.” MiamiHerald.com
Chad Cross, “KWCH coverage of Westboro protests: Understanding the issue.” KWCH.com
Tricia Bishop, “Supreme Court: Hearing involves protests at funeral of Marine.” BaltimoreSun.com
K. Ryan Jones, “Free (Hate) Speech.” Newsweek.com