Westboro addressed matters of public import on public property, in a peaceful manner, in full compliance with the guidance of local officials. It did not disrupt Mathew Snyder’s funeral, and its choice to picket at that time and place did not alter the nature of itsI think this is the right decision. As I wrote in the Scripps column last October:
speech. Because this Nation has chosen to protect even hurtful
speech on public issues to ensure that public debate is not stifled,
Westboro must be shielded from tort liability for its picketing in this
The case has been broadly portrayed as the church causing offense by inflicting itself upon a grieving family at the funeral of Snyder's son. The facts are somewhat different. Westboro members did indeed set up a picket -- but as required by law, they were 1,000 feet away from the funeral when it occurred. Snyder's family only encountered Phelps' vile words through after-the-fact news reports and a visit to Westboro's website.
Fred Phelps didn't inflict himself on Albert Snyder, in other words; Snyder subjected himself to Phelps' message. It's thus difficult to see how any exception to the First Amendment, however narrow, would fit this case. Under these circumstances, a court ruling against Phelps could only be seen as punishment for having and expressing the wrong beliefs. As repugnant as those beliefs are, that's not supposed to happen in America.