Crime & Courts

Phelps-protests case to go before Supreme Court

The U.S. Supreme Court said Monday that it will consider whether the First Amendment covers a Kansas church's anti-gay protests outside military funerals.

Shirley Phelps-Roper said the case of her family's Westboro Church spans the spectrum of the First Amendment — freedom of speech and religion, and the right to assemble.

"They are going to have to uproot an entire body of law to stop us," Phelps-Roper said after the U.S. Supreme Court agreed to hear the appeal of the father of a Marine killed in Iraq in 2006.

The case of Snyder v. Phelps will be heard by the nation's highest court during its next session, which begins in October.

Phelps-Roper, her father, Fred Phelps, and Westboro members contend the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and deaths of soldiers in war are punishment from God for America's tolerance of homosexuality.

Albert Snyder sued under claims including invasion of privacy and emotional distress. In October 2007 a federal jury in Baltimore awarded Snyder $10.9 million in damages, which the trial judge reduced to $5 million.

The Phelpses appealed, and the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals reversed the verdict, saying the protests were protected under the First Amendment.

The Court of Appeals said the church members' signs were not aimed specifically at Marine Lance Cpl. Matthew Snyder of Westminster, Md., but contained "imaginative and hyperbolic rhetoric intended to spark debate about issues" supported by Westboro.

"Speech that is called hateful, or speech that is unpopular, or speech with which you strongly disagree, may still be protected speech," the court wrote.

The father appealed to the Supreme Court, noting that a family at a funeral is a "captive audience" and cannot simply turn away from a hateful protest. "Snyder had one (and only one) opportunity to bury his son and that occasion has been tarnished forever," his lawyer said. "Matthew deserved better. A civilized society deserved better."

Topeka lawyer Pedro Irigonegaray, who has debated Fred Phelps in public forums, said the Supreme Court case will be interesting in defining boundaries for First Amendment.

"There are clearly limits to free speech, such as pornography and yelling 'fire' in a crowded theater when there is no fire," Irigonegaray said Monday. "The repulsive nature of the Phelpses' language has been characterized as hate speech. Whether or not damages can flow from that will be a major question for this court."

The church members carry signs saying "America is Doomed," "God Hates America" and "Thank God for Dead Solders."

"But when the speech becomes so vicious, you also have to look at how it affects the people at which it is directed, and the effects it has of them," Irigonegaray said.

He said the case could draw lines between how much civil discourse is allowed.

"I am an advocate for the First Amendment, having lived in a dictatorship where what people say could get them thrown into prison," said Irigonegaray, whose family immigrated to the U.S. from Cuba when he was 13. "But there also needs to be limits placed on the practices that are cutting deeper and deeper in our society of mean-spirited exchanges, whether it be by the Phelpses or other political interests."

On Monday, Westboro members protested in Utah at the funeral of the son of singer Marie Osmond, because she had been divorced.

Phelps-Roper said she is confident the First Amendment will prevail on their side.

"We're going to get to go talk to the court ourselves," Roper-Phelps said. "And everyone is going to be told, if you don't like what you see on those signs, take a big frothy mug of shut the hell up and avert your eyes."