Westboro Baptist Church | The First Amendment challenges

U.S. Supreme Court building

The U.S. Supreme Court is set to decide if the hate speech of Westboro Baptist Church is protected. Image from Flickr.

After several appeals, the Supreme Court has agreed to take on the free speech questions raised by the Westboro Baptist Church. An extreme church known for protests against homosexuality at funerals, colleges and public buildings, the Westboro Baptist Church has faced a wide range of legal challenges. The case the Supreme Court will be taking on involves Albert Snyder, the father of a U.S. Marine killed in the line of duty. Originally, Albert Snyder was awarded $8 million in a judgment against the Westboro Baptist Church – an amount the church may not be able to get with even the cheapest personal loans. The main question under debate is if the extreme hate speech practiced by the Westboro Baptist Church falls under protection of the First Amendment.

The history of Westboro Baptist Church

The Westboro Baptist Church has been in existence since 1955. The Westboro Baptist Church claims affiliation with Primitive Baptist and Calvinist principles, but it is not affiliated with any Baptist church and most Primitive Baptists reject the Westboro Baptist Church. Based in Topeka, the Westboro Baptist Church pickets funerals, gay pride events, pop concerts, football games and statehouses. The Westboro Baptist Church pickets these events to spread their anti-homosexuality, anti-Jewish, anti-other-religions message. The leaders of the Westboro Baptist Church and other church members have been specifically banned from entering the United Kingdom because of their “unacceptable behaviour by inciting hatred.”

The legal challenges of the Westboro Baptist Church

Westboro Baptist Church and its members have encountered numerous legal challenges. Westboro Baptist Church has won several free-speech lawsuits against several cities and states. During WBC protests, members have been convicted of trespassing, disorderly conduct, failure to obey police and contributing to the delinquency of a minor. The Supreme Court has previously rejected cases challenging Westboro Baptist Church, allowing lower court rulings to stand.

Albert Snyder’s lawsuit against Westboro Baptist Church

In 2006, Albert Snyder sued the Westboro Baptist Church leaders for their protest actions at his son’s funeral. The lawsuit said the Westboro Baptist Church violated the Snyder family’s right to privacy, as well as defamation. In the original lawsuit, Snyder was awarded $8 million in punitive damages. On appeal, the district judge upheld the ruling against Westboro Baptist Church, but reduced the payday loans award for Snyder to $2.1 million. On federal appeal, the case was overturned and Albert Snyder was ordered to pay the legal fees Westboro Baptist Church had incurred during the lawsuit. In March of 2010, the U.S. Supreme Court agreed to hear Albert Snyder’s lawsuit.

Limitations on constitutional free speech

The basic argument in the Westboro Baptist Church supreme court lawsuit is whether there are limitations on Constitutionally-protected free speech. In Chaplinsky v. New Hampshire, the Supreme Court ruled that free speech does not protect “obscene utterances” and “certain personal slurs.” The lawsuit also considers the possibility that the free speech expression of the Westboro Baptist Church may have violated the Snyder family’s constitutionally protected right to freedom of religion – to hold and attend their son’s funeral. When two constitutionally protected rights come into conflict, the Supreme Court is asked to determine where the line between the two should be drawn.

Christian Science Monitor
Balitmore Sun

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