States Watching Supreme Court Case on Military Funerals

 
Attorneys general from 48 states and the District of Columbia are closely watching oral arguments at the U.S. Supreme Court today (Oct. 6) in a free-speech case that questions whether — and to what extent — a Kansas church can protest at the funerals of U.S. service members.

The Westboro Baptist Church of Topeka, Kansas, has sparked national outrage because of the protests it has staged at military funerals, which have included showing up with signs that read "Thank God for dead soldiers" and "God hates you." The church argues that U.S. war deaths are God's punishment for the nation's tolerance of homosexuality. Whether a soldier was actually homosexual is not an issue for the church's leaders.

States have taken an active interest in the case because many of them have passed laws seeking to restrict the protests — specifying, for example, that the protesters must be a certain distance away from those attending the funerals. While acknowledging a First Amendment right to free speech, the states say that the church's speech should not be protected and infringes on personal privacy.

"Most Americans, myself included, believe in the First Amendment's vital role in our democracy and are willing to tolerate noxious expressions of free speech in its defense," Maryland Attorney General Doug Gansler wrote in an editorial published in today's Washington Post . "But even if this right allows one to spread hate through speech, it does not alter the wrongfulness of targeting a particular individual with that speech, whether by intentionally inflicting emotional distress on a grieving parent or by criminally invading a person's privacy during his most intimate moments."

Several newspaper editorial boards, however, including those of The Post and USA Today , disagree with the states, arguing that the church's protests — no matter how objectionable — must be protected.

"If Westboro's vitriol is deemed unworthy of First Amendment protection and a private citizen can sue to silence the church — or shut it down," The Post wrote , "then everyone's rights will be eroded and made dependent on the sensibilities of others."

Maine and Virginia are the only states that have not filed legal briefs in the case, Snyder v. Phelps .
 
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