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Justices Torn Between Sympathy for Soldier’s Family and Free Speech Protection

Anti-gay hate group targets military services

From the VA:

Arguments before the US Supreme Court on Wednesday over whether the Westboro Baptist Church of Topeka, Kansas, has the right to wage offensive demonstrations at military funerals generated significant media coverage last night and this morning, with lead stories on all three network news broadcasts and prominent stories in national dailies. The general thrust of the coverage was the justices’ struggle in balancing their obvious sympathy for the family of fallen Iraq veteran Matthew Snyder, whose Maryland funeral was picketed by members of the church, with their reluctance to curb vital free speech rights.
     NBC Nightly News (10/6, lead story, 3:40, Williams, 8.37M) broadcast, “This case has aroused strong passions, partly because of the setting, a military funeral, and partly because of the hateful message and several of the Justices seem to be offended by it, too. Fred Phelps of the tiny” Westboro Baptist Church “shows up at military funerals to claim that because the nation tolerates gay rights, US war deaths are God’s punishment.”
     The CBS Evening News (10/6, lead story, 2:40, Couric, 6.1M) broadcast that for Matthew Snyder’s father, Al Snyder, who “won a $5 million judgment against the church for invading his privacy, the case is about Matthew.” It was “not at all clear after these arguments,” however, “which way the court would rule. The Justices really struggled to balance the rights of the protesters with the rights of the families to be left alone.”
     In the report it aired on this story, ABC World News (10/6, lead story, 3:25, Sawyer, 8.2M) offered similar coverage, saying the “Supreme Court wrestled with whether to carve out a kind of funeral exception for the First Amendment.” In a sidebar segment, ABC World News (10/6, story 8, 2:20, Sawyer, 8.2M) broadcast a profile of Fred Phelps, stating, “Almost all of the congregants at the tiny Westboro Baptist Church are members of Phelps’ own family.”
 USA Today(10/7, Biskupic, 1.83M) reports, “Despite their sympathy for the bereaved father,” Supreme Court “justices, including Anthony Kennedy, often a key vote, clearly struggled with how to avoid a decision that encroaches on valid, although hateful, protest messages.”
     The AP(10/7, Sherman) says the justices, “in a rare public display of sympathy, strongly suggested Wednesday they would like to rule for a dead Marine’s father against fundamentalist church members who picketed his son’s funeral — but aren’t sure they can.” The AP adds, “Left unresolved after an hourlong argument that explored the limits of the First Amendment: Does the father’s emotional pain trump the protesters’ free speech rights?”
     According to Bloomberg News(10/7, Stohr), while the justices “searched for a possible way to reinstate a $5 million award against a Kansas minister and his two daughters for disrupting the Maryland funeral of a Marine who died in Iraq,” they “gave no clear indication which way they would rule.”
     The Washington Post (10/7, Barnes, 605K) reports, “Most First Amendment experts said before the argument that they expected the court to make a straightforward, if distasteful, ruling that even vile public speech is protected by the First Amendment.” But if “that is what the justices decide,” it “appeared from the oral arguments that it would not come without some angst.”
     The Washington Times(10/7, Conery, 77K) says that “in a somewhat unusual move, Justices Stephen G. Breyer and Antonin Scalia seemed to agree that the case may not be about a funeral.” Breyer, a “stalwart of the court’s liberal wing, noted that Albert Snyder, the soldier’s father, did not see the signs at the funeral,” while Scalia, a “mainstay of the court’s conservative wing, seemed skeptical of” Snyder’s attorney Sean Summers’ “assertion that Mr. Snyder could have a case against the Westboro Baptist Church simply because of what he saw on the groups’ website.”
     The New York Times(10/7, A21, Liptak, 1.01M) notes, “Before the argument in the case, Snyder v. Phelps, No., 09-751,” Westboro Baptist Church members “protested outside the Supreme Court. Abigail Phelps,” one of Fred Phelps’ “daughters, carried a sign that said ‘America is doomed.’” The Wall Street Journal(10/7, Bravin, 2.09M), meanwhile, points out that a decision on Snyder v. Phelps is expected by June.
     After noting that a “Kansas church known for protesting outside military funerals, including ones in Oklahoma, is now the focus of debate” before the US Supreme Court, the KOTV-TV Tulsa (10/6, Murray) website reported, “Many Oklahomans are torn over” the issue of whether offensive protests are protected by the First Amendment.
     NYTimes Siding With “Odious” Church Members. The New York Times(10/7, 1.01M) editorializes, “To the American Nazi Party, Hustler Magazine, and other odious figures in Supreme Court history, add the Rev. Fred Phelps Sr. and the members of the Westboro Baptist Church,” whose “antigay protests at the funeral of a soldier slain in Iraq were deeply repugnant but protected by the First Amendment.” The Times concludes that it is in the “interest of the nation that strong language about large issues be protected, even when it is hard to do so.”

View the original article at Veterans Today

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