That being said, it is still distressing to find out that some of the most powerful media organizations in this country have sided with Fred Phelps and his hate-filled minions with the Westboro Baptist Church.
In an amicus brief filed with the U. S. Supreme Court, the New York Times, Associated Press, Tribune Company, Bloomberg, the Society of Professional Journalists, NPR, the National Press Club, and numerous other media and First Amendment groups, not only came down firmly on the side of the church's "right" to protest at the funerals of American soldiers, but said it is vitally important that the protests be allowed to continue:
"Far more is at stake in this case than the ability of the Westboro Baptist Church to protest near military funerals. This case concerns an issue critical to a wide range of speakers, including members of the news media: whether a plaintiff may recover for intrusion and intentional infliction of emotional distress where the harm is based upon the publication of controversial speech about matters of public concern."
In the case that will be heard before the Supreme Court, Albert Snyder of Maryland is suing the church for disturbing the funeral of his son, Matthew Snyder, who was killed in a vehicle accident while serving in Iraq in 2006. When the funeral was held, Albert Snyder was greeted by Fred Phelps and his followers holding signs that declared that Matt Snyder was going to hell, "Thank God for dead soldiers," and numerous messages that God hates homosexuals. Phelps claims that soldiers' deaths are God's way of punishing the United States for its permissive attitude about gays.
Snyder won his lawsuit and was awarded damages, but the decision was overturned by the appellate court, which not only agreed with Phelps, but forced the dead soldier's father to pay Phelps' legal expenses. Now the decision will be made by the nation's highest court.
The kneejerk response of the media organizations, and understandably so, is to take the side of free speech. Yes, the First Amendment grants us the right to express ourselves on any side of any issue, and it protects the most vile and hateful speech. That is a right worth defending and one for which soldiers such as Matthew Snyder have given their lives.
In the brief, the media organizations concede that the speech and conduct of Fred Phelps and his followers is hateful:
Most reasonable people would consider the funeral protests conducted by members of the Westboro Baptist Church to be inexplicable and hateful. Without a doubt, the church’s message of intolerance is deeply offensive to many, and especially so to gay Americans, Catholics, veterans, and the families of those who sacrificed their lives defending the United States. But to silence a fringe messenger because of the distastefulness of the message is antithetical to the First Amendment’s most basic precepts.And I would be the first to agree- the courts should not deprive of Phelps of his constitutional right, no matter how demented and twisted the man is. Let him express whatever belief he wants to, including the ones mentioned earlier. Let him howl at the moon if he wants- but please do not allow Fred Phelps or anyone else to turn the First Amendment into an invitation to invade the privacy of grieving families.
The Supreme Court should protect Fred Phelps' right to free speech and freedom of assembly, but should also deliver a clear message about the sanctity of funerals for the sake of those who are left behind.
There should be room in this great country for dissent and decency.