Just saw a report on NBC Nightly News about a difficult and disturbing case landing on the Supreme Court today. The suit was brought by the father of slain solider Lance Cpl. Matthew Snyder after protesters from a so-called church -- Westboro Baptist -- in Topeka, Kansas, picketed his funeral with vile, nasty signs expressing joy that Snyder was killed in Iraq.
"Thank God for dead soldiers," one read. They said he deserved to die because, well, I'm having a hard time understanding their alleged thinking process. Something about God punishing America because it tolerates gay people.
I generally try to avoid giving the intellectually and morally challenged -- America's ignorant minority -- an additional platform. Today's Supreme Court case, though, raises a question that challenges my ardent support for the First Amendment: Should even the most repugnant words expressed in the most inappropriate places be protected by the same legal covenant that our nation's founders intended for, among other things, a free press? In other words, does the First Amendment give you the right to speak in such a way that reveals you're a pig?
The New York Times did a nice job laying out the arguments in its piece on the Snyder case. You can delve into the pros and cons of each side there.
It's hard for me to get to the legal question because I feel compelled to first address the religious issues here. Just as I hate it when simpleton, racist Southerners go on TV and make my native South look bad (most of us are not simpleton racists), I don't like it when morally retarded church-goers make all Christians look nut jobs (most of us are not nut jobs). Anyone invoking God's name to suggest that he is a hate-mongering bigot of any stripe is not addressing the God in my contacts list. The God I speak with each evening before I go to sleep is a loving divinity that discriminates against no man, woman or child. He does not condone prejudice or hate even against those like the Westboro Baptists who wrongly claim his mandate.
My Southern roots and nightly prayers aside, I readily admit I've long held a much greater passion for the U.S. Constitution than I do the bible. I am a student of the American Revolution and a person with great reverence for the freedoms it gave us. Should those freedoms include the right for hate mongers to trample the funeral of a young man who paid the ultimate price for his patriotism? I'm not sure that I can think of a public act so contemptible as what the Kansas Baptists did.
Mr. Snyder had previously won an $11 million jury verdict against the church's pastor, Fred W. Phelps, Sr., for the intentional infliction of emotional distress. I normally hear about such suits and think that the offended party should grow up. I hop on my free speech soap box and note that the Constitution does not give people the right to sue when they get their little feelings hurt.
Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg said state and local laws address buffer zones around funerals and those are a better response to the problem than private-injury law suits. That very much appeals to the "local government governs best" libertarian in me.
It doesn't satisfy my sense that there's a clear right and wrong here: No one has any business protesting anything at anyone's funeral, ever.
Write an editorial or blog post if you wish. March in front of the Pentagon. Tweet like crazy. There are no shortage of opportunities for people in the 21st century to express mis-shaped political views. Ignorance rings out across the country every day and CNN and Fox News are always happy to help should 60 seconds ever lapse without a chime.
I very much doubt Mr. Snyder sued because he wanted to cash in on his son's funeral. I don't know the man but it strikes me as inconceivable that he could do this. I suspect he sued for money to make a statement that there should be at least one spot in America where hate mongers like the Westboro Baptists can't spew venom under the cover of the First Amendment.
Maybe the right thing for the Supreme Court to do is set aside the $11-million award but declare the actions taken by the so-called church members illegal. That could kick the issue across the street to the steps of the Capitol to let the legislative branch address what the law of the land should be.
There's an even easier solution, of course: People such as those who protested at Snyder's funeral could choose to demonstrate a little human decency by finding more appropriate venues for their vitriol.
I suspect even the God they know would approve of that.