Westboro Baptist Church faces major hate speech decision

Some counter-protesting at a Westboro Baptist Church gathering. A woman is mock-protesting with a sign that reads "Stop Sparkly Vampires Now!" It's a reference to the popular "Twilight" book series.

Counter-protesting at a Westboro Baptist Church gathering. (Photo Credit: CC BY-SA/R. Steven Rainwater/Flickr)

Fred Phelps and the congregation of Kansas-based Westboro Baptist Church have proved that they are willing to actively protest Marine funerals as an expression of their faith. Now the Supreme Court is getting involved, reports The Baltimore Sun. The Court will decide whether the Westboro Baptist Church’s actions in relation to the 2006 funeral of an Iraq war soldier constitute hate speech and whether the family of the dead soldier is due millions of dollars that were previously awarded by a Baltimore federal court, but later overturned by an appeals court.

Westboro Baptist Church’s act has been labeled hate speech

Albert Snyder, the father of the deceased soldier, has revealed that while Westboro Baptist Church protesters were not immediately visible at the site of the funeral on March 3, 2006, he did catch them on television later. The Westboro flock had been gathered outside St. John’s Roman Catholic Church in Westminster, Md., during the funeral, with such signs as “Thank God for dead soldiers” and others that attacked homosexuality. The latter did not apply to the Marine or his family, but Westboro explained it as an attack against the “permissive” government that the dead Marine served. On a website maintained by Shirley Phelps-Roper – Fred Phelps’ daughter – The Sun reports that the Westboro Baptist Church attacks the Marine who died, his family and their Catholic faith.

Westboro sued for invasion of privacy and emotional distress

Snyder sued Westboro Baptist Church on the grounds of intentional infliction of emotional distress and invasion of privacy. The trial judge in Baltimore, who found Westboro’s actions outrageous and extremely offensive, upheld the jury verdict. However, the requested reward of $11 million was reduced by the judge to $5 million. By 2009, however, the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals threw out the Baltimore verdict, claiming that Westboro Baptist Church’s messages were protected by freedom of speech.

Now the Supreme Court is hearing Albert Snyder’s appeal. Oral arguments are being heard today. A decision on whether a “private figure” can sue if he is a “target of hateful speech” will come soon, writes the Sun.

Sources

The Baltimore Sun

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