BALTIMORE – Banning a fundamentalist church from protesting homosexuality outside military funerals would have a chilling effect on free speech, according to briefs filed to the U.S. Supreme Court by an ideologically diverse group of supporters.
Members of the Westboro Baptist Church in Topeka, Kan., picket military funerals around the country. They argue that U.S. military deaths are God's punishment for America's tolerance of homosexuality and carry signs with slogans including "Thank God for Dead Soldiers."
Albert Snyder of York, Pa., filed a lawsuit accusing the church of inflicting emotional distress and invading his privacy. He argues that the church's free speech rights did not trump his right to peacefully assemble for the 2006 funeral of his son, Lance Cpl. Matthew A. Snyder, in Westminster, Md.
A jury awarded Snyder nearly $11 million in damages. A judge later reduced that award, and an appeals court overturned the verdict. The Supreme Court will hear the case this fall.
Forty-eight states and the District of Columbia signed onto a brief supporting Snyder. The states argued they have a compelling interest in protecting the sanctity of funerals.
Seven briefs in support of Westboro were filed late Wednesday. They were submitted by law schools, civil liberties and free-speech organizations and other groups. The Reporters Committee for the Freedom of the Press filed a brief on behalf of 21 media organizations, including The Associated Press.
Westboro argues that it did not disrupt Matthew Snyder's funeral, in part because its protest was 1,000 feet away from the church, on a public street. It also says the funeral was a public event and that the church was offering "hysterical" commentary on an issue of public concern.
"This Court should not permit the premature death of the First Amendment," the conservative Liberty Counsel wrote in its brief. A ruling in Snyder's favor "threatens potentially devastating consequences for the continued vitality of free speech in the United States," according to a brief by the Rutherford Institute, a civil-liberties group in Charlottesville, Va.
The brief by the media organizations notes that reporters often must publish controversial material on matters of public concern and says a ruling in Snyder's favor would "expand dramatically the risk of liability for news media coverage and commentary."
Westboro's supporters take pains to note that they disagree with the content of the church's protests.
"Most reasonable people would consider the funeral protests conducted by members of the Westboro Baptist Church to be inexplicable and hateful," the media groups wrote. "But to silence a fringe messenger because of the distastefulness of the message is antithetical to the First Amendment's most basic precepts."