By JESS BRAVIN
WASHINGTON—The Supreme Court struggled Wednesday to protect a bereaved parent from a character attack without stifling free-speech rights.
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Jocob Phelps holds up a placard as he protests for his side of the Snyder V. Phelps case outside the Supreme Court in Washington Oct. 6.
The court confronted the problem in a case tailor-made to test how far the First Amendment protects offensive speech. At issue is whether the father of a fallen Marine can sue a fringe religious group that celebrated his son's death with funeral pickets and online attacks. Online, the group used vulgar language and crude imagery focusing on Lance Cpl. Matthew Snyder to amplify its message that America is doomed.
The tiny Westboro Baptist Church of Topeka, Kan., whose membership largely consists of founder Fred Phelps's relatives, believes that any misfortune America suffers is God's wrath for the nation's failure to follow the sect's doctrine, which condemns gays, Catholics, Jews and others. Among other messages, Westboro said Cpl. Snyder's parents raised their son to serve the devil.
Law Blog: Court Confronts Tough Issues in Case
Cpl. Snyder's father, Albert Snyder, sued the church for intentional infliction of emotional distress, winning a $5 million award. A federal appeals court in Richmond, Va., threw out the award, ruling that the First Amendment protected Westboro's speech, and the Supreme Court agreed to hear Mr. Snyder's appeal.
Some justices seemed flustered by the way the case was framed, mingling both the funeral pickets and the online material Westboro posted about Cpl. Snyder and his parents to arrive at the injury.
Sean Summers, a York, Pa., attorney representing Mr. Snyder, argued that the pickets disrupted a uniquely solemn event. But he acknowledged that the Westboro members complied with police directions to keep a certain distance from the ceremony at St. John's Catholic Church in Westminster, Md. Mr. Snyder, although he knew the picket was planned, didn't actually see signs proclaiming "God Hates You" and "You're Going to Hell," among other messages, until watching a later television news report.
Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg observed that the same day, Westboro had used the same signs to picket the state capitol in Annapolis. That, she suggested, seemed more like a broad comment on "the whole rotten society" than singling out Cpl. Snyder.
Justices Antonin Scalia and Stephen Breyer seemed more interested in the significance of the online component than the funeral picket.
The picket conformed to local regulations and, some justices suggested, could be hard to legally distinguish from a traditional antiwar protest. The Internet posting was a new animal.
Justice Breyer said he was "very bothered" by the online element. "I don't know what the rules are" in the new medium.
Justice Samuel Alito, however, suggested the Internet posting helped Mr. Snyder's case, because its specific attack on the Snyder family clarified who Westboro's pickets meant by "you."
Fred Phelps's daughter, Margie Phelps, is a lawyer, and she represented the Westboro defendants, as she has in other litigation for years.
She argued that the sect had a First Amendment right to express its views on public issues and seek publicity for them. She said Mr. Snyder effectively invited a public dialogue with Westboro by comments he made to a newspaper reporter in 2006 after learning his 20-year-old son had died in a Humvee accident in Iraq's Anbar Province.
"When is this senseless war going to end?" he told the Baltimore Sun. "I just want it to be over. And I want answers."
If Mr. Snyder publicly asks such questions, she said, "a little church where the servants of God are found" has the right to say, "we have an answer to your question that you put in the public airwaves, and our answer is you have got to stop sinning if you want this trauma to stop happening."
Justice Samuel Alito asked if the church would have the same right "if the parent had said, instead, 'I'm proud of my son because he died in the service of our country.' Is he stepping into a public debate by doing that?"
Ms. Phelps said that would be equal justification for the church's actions.
Justice Elena Kagan pressed further. What if the court found the parent hadn't joined a public debate, or had made no comments at all?
Ms. Phelps responded that as long as the speech concerned "public issues" and didn't involve physical harassment, such as stalking, it couldn't be punished for its message.
Justice Anthony Kennedy was troubled that any private individual could be singled out for vicious personal attack if he or she could be linked to some public issue.
"All of us in a pluralistic society have components to our identity; we are Republicans or Democrats, we are Christians or atheists, we are single or married, we are old or young. Any one of those things you could turn into a public issue and follow a particular person around, making that person the target of your comments," he said.
A decision is expected by June.
This kind of stuff infuriates me. if i was a retaliative or good friend of this man and was there i would heel hook every last one of them with a smile on my face so they couldn't stand in the demonstrations anymore.
i have friends in Afghanistan and iraq and to think that these people would celebrate their death just makes me so mad.