COMMENTARY: Insult to injury

By Jermaine A. Wyrick

Life's most difficult challenge itself is the end, death, and the mourning process thereafter for loved ones--friends and family members. The recent Snyder v. Phelps Supreme Court decision has a dramatic effect not only on speech, but the way a family can grieve. Factually, the case began when a soldier, Matthew Snyder, died in the war in Iraq in 2006. Members of the Westboro Baptist Church protested outside the church where his funeral was held. The Rev. Fred Phelps led a protest because he attributes the U.S. deaths in the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq as God's punishment for the nation's tolerance of homosexuality. Protestors stood 30 feet from the church's entrance. Protestors' signs included, "Thank God for dead soldiers." "You're Going to Hell," "God Hates the USA/Thank God for 9/11" Furthermore, they screamed, "God hates fags!" One sign had a depiction of two men having sex. They did this notwithstanding the fact that Matthew Snyder was not gay. They also protested the funeral of Elizabeth Edwards, the estranged wife of former Senator and presidential candidate John Edwards. Elizabeth Edwards was not gay either, and dealt with her husband's infidelity and her grave illness, cancer, with dignity. Her funeral procession should have reflected that same dignity.

When Matthew Snyder's father, Albert, read a poem on the church's website that attacked his parents for the way he was raised, he filed a lawsuit against Westboro Baptist Church accusing Rev. Phelps of intentional infliction of emotional distress. He won $11 million at trial that a judge later reduced to $5 million. The Supreme Court decision vacated the judgment. In fact, Attorney Margie Phelps, a daughter of the minister who argued the case before the Supreme Court stated, "The only way for a different ruling is to shred the First Amendment." Moreover, Attorney Phelps stated, "The wrath of God is pouring onto this land. Rather than trying to shut us up, use your platforms to tell this nation to mourn for your sins."

The Supreme Court held the signs and protests were protected speech under the First Amendment. Chief Justice Roberts stated, "Speech is powerful. It can stir people to action, move them to tears of both joy and sorrow, as it did here--inflict great pain. On the facts before us, we cannot react to that pain by punishing the speaker." Furthermore, Justice Roberts stated, "As a nation we have chosen a different course--to protect even hurtful speech on public issues to ensure that we do not stifle public debate."

Justice Alito in his dissent vehemently disagreed, stating, "Our profound national commitment to free and open debate is not a license for the vicious verbal assault that occurred in this case." Further, he stated that Albert Snyder, the father, "wanted what is surely the right of any parent who experiences such an incalculable loss: to bury his son in peace."

Nothing is crueler than righteous indignation. Although I have the highest respect for the Supreme Court and the highest regard for the law, the Snyder v. Phelps majority decision is problematic. Albert Snyder profoundly asked, "The government has no problem sending our young men and women to wars, they come back in body bags, and they can't have enough respect to protect the families?" Supporters of the Snyder family asked the court to shield funerals from the protestors' "psychological terrorism." I would agree with the dissent. This type of speech is tantamount to kicking a person when he is down. I believe the grieving process should be calm, dignified, and peaceful. Raucous protestors at a funeral disturb the peace, and dehumanize the ceremony. This decision reminds me of the law school hypothetical where you are told that one cannot shout "Fire" in a dark, crowded theater. Essentially, the Supreme Court decision allows protestors to engage in incendiary language at one of life's darkest moments.

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Attoney Jermaine A. Wyrick can be reached at (313) 964-8950, or by e-mail: Attyjaw1@Ameritech.net. He is also available for speaking engagements on legal topics.

Published: Fri, Mar 18, 2011

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