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Parents of veteran lose Supreme Court case on first amendment issue

I am fresh back from Burma (now officially Myanmar by edict of the military junta) and over my jet-lag - ready to resume my writing duties. Not sure if I was missed but here goes anyway. The front page of yesterday's New York Times featured a story about The Supreme Court's ruling overturning a jury verdict awarded to the family of an Iraq veteran (Snyder v Phelps). The Westboro Baptist Church of Topeka Kansas chose to demonstrate at this honored soldier's funeral. They carried signs and posters denouncing the military's policy on gays, saying such things as "God Hates Fags" and contending that God punished this young man because of the military's policy and - yes - the Catholic Church was also responsible. The ludicrousness and absurdity aside for the moment this case has become another flash point issue on the ongoing redefinition of the free speech doctrine by our current group of justices. Having just returned from a country that many say has the most repressed policies on civil rights in the world, and having served my country as a Vietnam naval veteran, this morning's news was a very clear reminder that this country sets the example for the rest of the world in human rights. During the Vietnam war protesters claimed that returning veterans were "baby killers". These protestors pale by comparison to a group of religious fanatics who would actually interfered with this proud family's right to grieve. The Citizens United case and the Mohave Cross case are examples of a conservative Supreme Court gone amuck (see my previous posts). Justice Roberts with the agreement of all of the other Justices with the exception of Alito got this one right. The parents had sued under tort law for intentional infliction of emotional distress which is a claim for personal injury. Justice Roberts writing for the court said that the first amendment can be used as a defense in a law suit for personal injury. The court said that speech which is of public concern ranks in the highest order of first amendment protection. It concluded that the signs and posters used by the church in its protest raised matters of public concern, i.e. the political and moral conduct of the United States. The context of the speech which was the funeral of Matthew Snyder does not change the fact that the underlying message was of broader public interest. Free speech does have limitations regarding the location of the protest, but apparently the court did not feel that in this case the location should limit the church's right to protest. Perhaps because the picketing was not directly in front of the church and did not obstruct or prevent the services in any way. In fact Matthew's father could not see the posters from the church itself. So, the court ruled that even in cases where the conduct is hurtful the Nations interest in free speech must take priority. As Americans we can abhor the conduct of these "wacky" people but take great pride that we still hold some things as sacred. This may be the only time I say it, but it must be said -  good work Justice Roberts and colleagues. Dennis F Feeley       

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