The First Amendment guarantees freedom of speech in America and this includes religious beliefs in the form of placards and protest that some may find offensive. The recent case of Snyder v Phelps which recently aired oral arguments last fall, has now reached a decision in favor of a small strange Baptist church. Snyder, the plaintiff, had a son who was a service member who died in the line of duty. During the funeral, members of a controversial Baptist church picketed outside. The picket signs they carried were considered offensive and an invasion of privacy for the Snyders, so a lower court had awarded Snyder up to $5 million in damages. The Supreme Court overruled that decision on the basis of the church’s right to freedom of speech. Although the major press carried the story, they did not give the full details of how the majority of the justices arrived at their decision. Although there was one dissenting member, it appeared that the court believed the need to preserve free speech, especially in a public forum discussing religious and political views, outweighed any right to privacy the Snyders may have wished.
When you listen to the oral arguments, it becomes clear that the justices realized an important and historical precedent was being set regarding First Amendment Constitutional rights. It appeared that the church’s lawyer, represented by Ms. Phelps went into battle well-armed with knowledge about all aspects of what free speech is allowable and which is not. She pressed the fact that the protesters stood at least 1,000 feet away and were not “immediate” to or face-to-face with the Snyder family. This helped convince the court that no “fighting words” or “stalking” or other forms of personal injury had taken place. The fact that Mr. Snyder and others were widely offended by the rather strange message by the church, simply did not pass the threshold of encroachment. One example of a civil damage claim would be those who attack people as they enter abortion clinics. For this reason, municipalities have enacted codes or standards which restrict protesters from blocking egress into buildings or personally having contact with those of opposing viewpoints.
Another argument by Phelps and the church was that Mr. Snyder had already entered into the public arena as a public speaker. Evidentally, he had appeared on the media talking about his son’s death and funeral which in the mind of the church gave them license to respond or answer. But for Mr. Snyder’s public speech, they probably would not have entered into the public discussion. This is important as one of the justices actually asked the church’s attorney if the scenario of free speech protections would be different if hypothetically the mother of the deceased military son had been waiting for a bus and accosted by the protesters. Proximity, imminence, malice aforethought, fighting words and stalking appeared to be the criteria upon which the justices were interested and they could have ruled the other way.
Unfortunately, Mr. Snyder’s attorney was not as knowledgeable about First Amendment free speech criteria. He may have been resting upon the lower court’s premature ruling (offensiveness) without having brought forth any complaints against the church initially like “fighting words” or “stalking” upon which the civil damages could have held up over time. Libel, slander, malice did not appear to be issues here either. Free speech means that sometimes people are offended by what they see and hear and as Mrs. Phelps pointed out, if they do not like it, they can “pull down the shades.” Oddly, she often reiterated the same religious beliefs presented by the protesters, something about God punishing military members for sin in America, but the Supreme Court wisely drew her back to the case law at hand and not the ideology that precipitated the case. Sadly, Snyder’s lawyer went a little far afield when answering questions posed by the Court about what subjective criteria would determine whose speech gets protected and whose does not and under what circumstances. It would have been helpful if he had a few citations at hand which lay out these kinds of boundaries as the Phelps’ church-lady lawyer did.
This was an important case for anyone who may be affected by free speech issues. One case that comes to mind would be the right of teachers to present creationism in the classroom as an alternative to evolution, however, if civil parameters are set up from the start as to what speech is acceptable and what is not by cities, counties and states, the higher courts would not have to become the final arbiters of what religious speech can and should be tolerated. Most people sided with Snyder’s right to mourn the loss of his son without intrusive interference in the court of public opinion, but our First Amendment right to all express ourselves freely evidently won the day in the Supreme Court.