Supreme Court To Hear Snyder vs. the Westboro Baptist Church

October 4th, 2010

On Wednesday the supreme court is set to hear the case of Alfred Snyder vs.The Westboro Baptist Church.  At stake will be the limits of free speech and whether or not the WBC violated Snyder’s rights to a peaceable assembly during the funeral of his 20 year old son, a marine who was killed in the Iraq war.

In 2007 Snyder won 11 million in damages from the WBC for protesting his son’s funeral and inflicting intentional emotional distress on the Snyder family.  A later judge reduced the damages to five million, but the case was eventually overturned on appeal and Snyder was ordered to pay some of the court costs incurred by the Phelp’s family.  When news of the overturn hit the news media, thousands of people donated money to help the Snyder family pay off the sixteen thousand dollar court ordered tab including Fox News reporter, Bill O’ Reilly.

The infamous case of Flynt v. Falwell is one of the precedents expected to be examined in this case.  In 1988 Jerry Falwell sued Hustler Magazine over a parody ad that appeared in Hustler magazine stating that Falwell’s first sexual encounter was with his mother in an outhouse.  Flynt won this case based on the fact that Falwell is a public figure and the ad was obviously a parody.  However, Snyder is not a public figure and the WBC clearly does not intend for their protests to be perceived as a parody.

More than forty states have made it harder for the WBC to disrupt military funerals forcing their protests to be held specific distances from the solemn proceedings.  Because of his state’s distance requirements, Snyder was not even aware that the Phelps family had protested his son’s funeral until later in the day as he did not see them before, during or after the event.  The fact that the protestors were required to be so far from the actual funeral may hurt the Snyder case.

It is a troubling issue.  Basic human decency insists that one should be allowed to grieve a loved one’s death in peace.  But Fred Phelps and his gang of hatemongers refuse to play by those rules.  Is it possible to limit free speech in situations that only serve to heighten the suffering of grieving people?  Or should our laws continue to allow for free speech with very little restriction (such as being certain distances from funeral services) despite the pain and suffering this can inflict on private individuals?  Margie Phelps, daughter of Fred Phelps will argue the case for the WBC.  I am anxious to hear what the Supreme Court decides.


  • km:

    They have a sign “god loves dead soldiers”. Can you imagine seeing that as the parent of the dead son or daughter? I don’t think I’d be able to restrain myself.

  • Kiara:

    The WBC disgusts me. Always have and always will. I hope they lose.

  • Jimmy-boy:

    They are disgusting – but then so are so many cults, really. I’d legislate (but then I am a European) to stop them because they cause real and immediate hurt. There is no need to get into a moral examination of the legitimacy of their case: they hurt real people in real time with a hurt that is universally understandable.

    I make that point because I realise it looks to be odds with the post you took issue with previously, Rechelle on the hate guys burning their quoran’s. In that case, while I’m not a big fan of folks with their views, I just cannot see that anyone is really hurt by those actions (though recognise that some might disagree). But only in the same way that world’s Hindu’s are legitimately hurt everytime anyone eats a burger say.

    In this case, there is real and immediate hurt caused to people who by any stretch of the imagination, deserve protection at a time of severe vulnerability.

    Is that contradictory?

    • Rechelle:

      I too can see the distinction between burning a book and standing outside a funeral with hateful ‘placards’ as you Europeans say. I wish that Americans used the word ‘placard’ more – such a great word – BUT ANYWAY! I agree that there is a clear line between the two types of acts. In your country Jimmy-boy – are these types of protests allowed?

      • km:

        In Ireland there’s a law you can invoke “incitement to hatred”. I used the threat of that law once to shut down a pro-life, foetus in jars placard group on a college campus. They scuttled.

      • Jimmy-boy:

        Rechelle – apologies if it came across wrong: it can be difficult to express subtleties sometimes… I wasn’t suggesting you couldn’t see the difference between the two situations (particularly as the two cases do seem to be some way apart) – just that this is where I would draw the line.

        In the UK I think that we would certainly have difficulties with the book burning (we had 5 racists arrested for burning quorans the other day): we have a law against inciting racial hatred which seems to have been extended to religious groups somehow. We have no blasphemy law – but this is a backdoor to it.

        The Home Secretary (Minister for the Interior; not sure what the equivalent is in the US) can ban any demonstration – and has just done so in fact, for the anti-Nazi’s and the ‘English Defence League’ (you may imagine…) trying to meet (and probably fight) next weekend.

        We would find some way of stopping Fred Phelps I am sure. Basically we don’t have quite such strong laws as you guys about freedom to speak: we definitely infringe that freedom sometimes.

        That has it’s up side (when it’s shutting up idiots) and it’s down side (when it’s shutting up people I agree with).

        I’m kidding of course. Sort of.



        • Rechelle:

          Jimmy-boy – I am remembering now when a member of the Phelps family was barred from entering England. I wish we could ban them too. As restrictive as your laws may be at times, I can also see the upside of disallowing free speech that incites hate. It seems to me that Great Britian is not exactly stitched up too tightly – at least in terms of speech and yet they can still call a halt to hateful speech such as what the Phelps do. I certainly didn’t take any offense to any of your previous statements. I generally only get ticked off towards right wing Christian homeschoolers and Pioneer Woman fans. Heh, heh.

          • Jimmy-boy:

            That is one of the bits of law which does see to be effective: the Home Secretary can just choose not to allow horrible idiots in. That’s great! If they look like they won’t be conducive to the general good…well – hard tough – no visa! Love it!

            S yes – there is an upside to a level of restriction…but we are seeing the flips ide of that now, with the threat of restriction and prosecution against those who mock religion.

            That’s just giving religion way too much space.

            Trying to think clearly though, I’ve spent a fair amount of time in the US as well – and on balance, I’d take the UK route to freedom of speech I think. ie it is not a universal, totally unimpeded right. There are some limits…

  • Emily:

    I’m pretty confident that WBC will win in this case. They always do. And they do this kind of malicious baiting ALL THE TIME, hoping to provoke exactly the kind of reaction the Snyders had. Or better yet, hoping to get someone to attack them physically so they can press charges for assault. They’re disgusting, but they’re extrememly well-versed in their rights to free speech.

    It’s why groups like the Patriot Guard Riders, or campus groups that organize counter-protests or kiss-ins are marginally successful. All you can really do to fight back is to use your own free speech rights. No one should have to deal with something like that at a loved one’s funeral, but WBC is very hard to beat in the courts. Plus they have no shame, so media coverage and public opinion are not going to sway them.

    Like you say, the distance that WBC had to maintain will not help the case but it looks like it helped the family. If Mr. Snyder was not aware of the protesters during the funeral, he will have a difficult time proving emotional distress. I think enforcing that buffer is a good way to counter them because it drastically limits the impact of what they’re saying without unequally restricting free speech.

  • Ah the darling WBC. May they rot in hell. : )

    Unfortunately this is just what the WBC is hoping for. Another media splash. While I hope someone someday finds a way to slap them down into oblivion, I don’t think it will be the case this time around. I do think the distance requirements are an excellent starter approach. I believe in free speech, but there’s a huge difference between free speech and hate crimes. These guys are toeing the line.

    Also, I agree. More use of “placards”. And may we please have the “incitement to hatred” law?

    • Jimmy-boy:

      Be very careful of that ‘incitement to hateed’ law. We cannot criticise Islam or Christianity freely any more in the UK. And I am not talking about extremism either. Jokes are now being looked at with an eye to prosecution…

      We are likely to see a significant rise in the likes of this (not suitable for work – but an acutely funny song) –

      The only thing I can think is that we will chip away at these laws: one can always find a grey line and challenge at that point. I think we HAVE to be able to mock religion. The incitement to hatred laws are too blunt an instrument I believe.



  • My husband is a proud member of the National Guard, and we are anticipating a deployment in the spring. Hubby would tell you that Phelps & Co. have a right to free speech, and that as a member of the military, he is willing to give his life for them to say what they think (even if it’s at his funeral).

    BUT, other people have a right to free speech too – enter the Patriot Guard. In an act of honor for fallen veterans, these guys line up their motorcycles between family and WBC protesters and will do whatever it takes to spare the family (my favorite is reving their engines so loud that protests can not be heard!)

    These guys are Pure Class (never thought I’d say that about motorcycle men) and I get a little teary eyed whenever I think about the act of service they do for the families of fallen soldiers.

    check out to learn more

  • LucyJoy:

    I’ll be very interested in their decision, too.

    Good post, Rechelle. You always are able to articulate what I’m feeling.

  • Kristin:

    My 16 year old despises the WBC (as do most sane people I know) & was thrilled to be able to counter protest them this summer in KC. I was very proud of her. And her dad, brother & grandma for joining her. I, sadly, was stuck in the hospital.

    • GG:

      Hey, I loved doing it with her. Wish you had been there too.

    • Marge (GG):

      I was happy to be there with the grandchildren and Jim. Sorry that you had to miss it by being in the hospital.

  • Mary:

    Today, on their way to DC, the WBC picked one of the high schools in my district as a site of one of their protests. Our staff and students conducted themselves admirably, and the small WBC group was met by about 100 counter-protesters. A number of students had to drive or walk past these sick people in order to get to school. Each and every one of those kids was told “God hates you” by these “christians.”

    The sheriff’s dept. was there in force, the construction crew, still working on the new building, were visible and guided students into the building, and the local news crews did NOT announce the protest prior to the event.

    Why this particular school in our district? They have a strong anti-bullying policy that specifically addresses gay bashing.

    I’m proud of the students and of my colleagues for acting with dignity this morning.

    • Rechelle:

      I am glad to hear of a school specifically addressing gay bashing. I hope that similar programs soon becomes business as usual in all highschools.

  • As much as I LOATHE the actions of the WBC, I hope for all of us that the case is decided in their favor.

    It is easy to deny rights to a group like this. The problem of course is that ever present “slippery slope” where protests of all sorts become the victim of rights beings crushed.

    I protested frequently during the Bush Administration and trust me, there is already enough “under the radar” crushing of rights to free speech, we don’t need more.

    Either ignoring them, which admittedly is near impossible or something along the lines of The Patriot Guard the @Julie mentions seem to be the best tactics.

    I have participated in AIDS walks with friends, in memory of friends and with some who were HIV positive and have encountered these types of groups – as long as 15 years ago. At first I screamed at them – I felt so protective of my beloved friends, I lost it.

    A couple of years of that proved totally useless. So our next tactic was to stand there and catcall them. Tell them how sexy they were and the naughty things we wanted to do with/to them, promising them that Jesus loved BJ’s, etc… Most of them shut-up and turned their backs and we got lots of laughs and memories rather than getting all worked up over arguing with ignorant brick walls!