The U.S. Supreme Court heard arguments Wednesday in Snyder v. Phelps, a case about the nature and scope of basic rights — those of free speech vs. those of privacy. But this case is fundamentally about wrongs and the law's imperfect ability to redress them.
The facts of the case are well-known. Matthew Snyder, a Marine lance corporal from Westminster, Md., was killed in the line of duty in Iraq in 2006. Fred Phelps and members of his Westboro Baptist Church traveled more than 1,000 miles from Topeka to Maryland to picket his funeral and draw attention to their view that society and the military are too tolerant of homosexuality. They stood at the entrance of the church where the funeral was held, waving signs that said, "Thank God for Dead Soldiers," "God Hates Fags" and "God Hates You."
They followed their protest by publishing a poem on the Internet titled "The Burden of Marine Lance Cpl. Matthew Snyder," which stated that Snyder's parents "taught Matthew to defy his creator" and "raised him for the devil." The connection between the Phelpses' faith and their political views may be difficult to understand, but it is not difficult to see how this targeted expression of their views would be particularly hurtful to Snyder's father, Albert Snyder, on the occasion of his son's funeral.
Indeed, a Maryland jury found that while the Phelpses may have a general right to broadcast their hate, their intrusion on Snyder's funeral nevertheless constituted a wrong. The jury found that Phelps and his followers, through their disruptive picketing and public insult of the Snyder family at a time of grief, had engaged in conduct that was extreme, outrageous and designed to inflict severe emotional distress on Albert Snyder — distress that included worsened diabetes and depression. For this injury and for the invasion of Albert Snyder's privacy during the funeral, the jury awarded him monetary damages.
Eventually, a three-judge panel of the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond, Va., overturned the damages award, and Albert Snyder's attorney appealed to the Supreme Court.
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. 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.
That is why, in Snyder v. Phelps, I joined attorneys general from 47 states and the District of Columbia to argue that the right to free speech must be limited where the speech is targeted at individuals during moments as private as a funeral. Ultimately, the Snyder case shows that one group's exercise of rights can have potentially harmful consequences for another's, and no matter what the court decides in this case, those consequences can never be fully avoided.
The Constitution creates an impressive framework of rights that should be robustly defended. But these rights were created by the people, for the people, and when they are invoked to evade responsibility for wrongs committed against the people, their value is diminished.
In deciding Snyder, the Supreme Court should be careful not to let the boundaries of our rights be set purely by those who wish to abuse them. To do otherwise would bring dishonor to those, such as Lance Cpl. Matthew Snyder, who fought to protect them.