Harassment Masquerading as expression

Published 8:06 am Wednesday, October 13, 2010

A number of Americans oppose the U.S. military presence in Iraq and Afghanistan. Some have taken to the streets in open protest. But do such protests cross a line when they interfere with the solemn funeral of a fallen soldier?

The Supreme Court has agreed to weigh in on the matter.

American military personnel have generally received the respect and gratitude that they deserve from the public. However, a group of people from a church in Topeka, Kan., have gone out of their way to do the opposite.

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The Westboro Baptist Church (most of its members are relatives of the pastor, Fred Phelps), have bounced around the country looking for attention by staging demonstrations at churches and military funerals. They shout and hold placards denouncing homosexuals, Catholics, Jews and other groups. Westboro members preach that U.S. military deaths are God’s punishment for laws that protect the civil rights of homosexuals.

They held one such demonstration at the 2006 funeral of Marine Matthew Snyder at a Catholic church in Westminster, Md. They carried signs that stated, “Thank God for dead soldiers,” “God Hates the USA/Thank God for 9/11,” and other incendiary statements. The protest, and counterprotests, forced the funeral procession to change its route to the cemetery.

The group also posted a poem on its website accusing Mathew Snyder’s mother and father of being bad parents.

The father sued, claiming harassment and intentional infliction of emotional distress. He was awarded $11 million in a lower court, which was later reduced to $5 million. A federal appeals court, however, reversed the judgment. Westboro filed a claim against Snyder’s father demanding $16,000 in court fees, which the court said he must pay. He has refused.

The Westboro group’s tactics are distasteful, probably even to people who might agree with them. They are, however, criticisms of U.S. policy that must be protected under the First Amendment. Whether they have a right to target and harass innocent Americans during a time of their greatest grief is something with which the high court must wrestle. But any decision that restricts a group’s ability to take a contrarian position is dangerous, since people will be quick to declare any unpleasantness as harassment.

Past Supreme Court decisions have noted that the First Amendment was designed specifically for this kind of situation. After all, there’s no need to protect speech when everyone agrees with what someone is saying. Dissent must be protected, and protesters have no obligation to be nice.

The First Amendment also gives groups like Westboro the right to assemble peaceably, although local law enforcement can restrict their movement and placement in the interest of public safety. Most cemeteries are private property.

The best way to lessen the likelihood of such nuisances, of course, would be to stop being so quick to launch questionable military campaigns and ask questions later.