Last week, the Supreme Court handed down its decision protecting Fred Phelps’ Westboro Baptist Church’s protest of the funeral of Marine Lance Corporal Matthew A. Snyder in Westminster, Md.
Snyder died in Iraq in March 2006 from a noncombat-related vehicle accident. Members of Phelps’ congregation picketed Snyder’s funeral. A few weeks later, his father, Albert Snyder, became very upset when he read a hateful poem about the dead Corporal posted online by the group. Since then, Albert Snyder has fought against Westboro’s right to disturb funerals because of the resulting physical and emotional harm up through the judicial system.
I cannot describe how upsetting the verdict of Snyder’s trial was to me. Seven years older than me, Snyder was from my town and attended a neighboring high school. I never knew Snyder, but a good number of people from my high school go into the military after graduation. The idea that Phelps could show up to one of their funerals with signs like “God Hates Fags” and “Thank God For 9/11” disgusts me.
But I do appreciate the argument that it is a matter of free speech. The First Amendment defends loving and hating discourse equally; it exists to protect our right to say what we believe, even if others disagree. But the Supreme Court declared in Chaplinsky v. New Hampshire in 1942 that the Constitution does not protect “fighting words,” meaning statements that provoke people to commit hostile acts. Westboro’s picketing signs often incite violence, urging the murder of gays, U.S. soldiers or anyone else they disagree with. Luckily, most people do not read these signs and immediately follow them, but it should be pointed out that the court itself made threats like this illegal.
Additionally, it is a matter of invasion of privacy and emotional brutality. Snyder’s funeral was a somber, tragic occasion. The protestors’ disturbance negatively impacted the family and friends present and even aggravated Albert Snyder’s diabetes. The court stated that it was not a personal attack on the dead Corporal because most of the signs were about national issues, not him. What about the sign stating that Snyder was going to hell for serving in the United States military? In his minority dissenting opinion, Justice Samuel Alito said, “Our profound national commitment to free and open debate is not a license for the vicious verbal assault that occurred in this case.” Even if it was only a few signs, they should not be discounted.
I understand why the Supreme Court made its decision. If it ruled Westboro’s picketing illegal, it would have created a slippery slope in which the court would have to decide how many signs make the First Amendment inapplicable. But at a time when the country is finally starting to recognize emotional well-being and mental health as real issues with legal boundaries and consequences, wouldn’t this trial have been a good place to start? Extending the “fighting words” decision to encompass harmful expressions might have kick-started a national shift. The United States needs to learn how to confront the effects of both physical violence and emotional abuse in modern society. A different verdict for Snyder would have been a point to build off of.
Lucy Walker is a freshman drama major. E-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org.