When Rights Collide

US Marine Lance Corporal Matthew Snyder loved his country. Immediately after graduating high school in 2003 he enlisted to serve his country. Then, in early 2006 Matthew died in a non-combat vehicle accident in Anbar, Iraq. In the aftermath, his father Albert described Iraq as a senseless war but honored his son’s memory and love for the Marine Corps. He was shocked when members of the infamous Westboro Baptist Church showed up to picket at the funeral. Carrying signs saying “Thank God for IED’s,” “Thank God for Dead Soldiers,” “Troops Die God Laughs,” “USMC Fags,” “Semper Fi Fags” and “God Hates Fag Enablers” the Phelpsians have picketed hundreds of funerals for troops returning home for their final welcome. They have staged such shows for no other reason than to earn notoriety and garner hatred against themselves (thus making themselves “martyrs” in their own minds).

I’ve talked about the Phelpsians before. I refuse to follow them closely because they don’t deserve the attention they’re seeking. I agreed with Albert Snyder, though; he refused to take it on the sidelines. He sued WBC for punitive damages and in 2008, the court awarded him more than $5M. The decision was overturned on appeal by a court that argued upholding the Phelps’ First Amendment rights. Then they took it a step further yesterday. Despite the US Supreme Court agreeing to hear the case late this year, the appeals court outrageously ordered Albert Snyder to pay WBC’s legal fees. They total in excess of $16,500.

While Snyder has flat refused to pay Phelps’ legal fees, Bill O’Reilly has offered to pay them in full as Snyder is struggling to pay his own legal fees (take THAT, liberal FOX haters) and Phelps will be as mean and nasty as he can legally be in forcing Snyder to pay. Know what’ll happen if SCOTUS rules in Snyders’ favor and orders Phelps to give it all back? There won’t be a snowball’s chance in hell Phelps will pay a red cent.

Regardless, this wasn’t about stifling free speech. I’ll be the first to defend Phelps’ right to spew his hate, even to the point of giving his troupe a police guard outside Houston Pride if he chooses to picket there. At funerals, however, is where the line is drawn.

There is a certain limit to free speech, picketing and public displays. Never did the founders believe that the First Amendment was an all-encompassing pass to behave as we wish. We have to walk a tightrope when applying those rights and choosing to limit them. I believe a certain amount of public decency should be enforced. I believe this should cover all funerals, regardless of whether I agree with the decedent or disagree.

I have friends who still live in Littleton who, to this day, bear the scars of the shooting in 1999 that killed thirteen innocent souls and wounded nearly two dozen. Along with them, I felt a deep anger for Harris and Klebold. I believe it is a shame, however, that the shooters’ families had to bury their sons in unmarked plots and must be very careful when they visit for fear of the plots being discovered (if they ever get to visit). I believe even their parents should have been allowed to bury them in peace, and when parents angry about losing their beautiful children pulled down the two crosses on the hill overlooking the school out of anger they were wrong. Justice should be done. If the parents can be found complicit in allowing their children to have the freedom to commit these crimes, then by all means, let the law be properly interpreted, but no matter what, even for the family of a monster like John Wayne Gacy, some privacy and dignity should be allowed. That is one process with which we should not interfere.

Look at it from another angle…the First Amendment gives us five distinct rights: freedom of speech, freedom of the press, freedom to petition the government for a redress of grievances, freedom of religion, and freedom to peaceably assemble. Check the wording again…word-for-word, the First Amendment says, [Congress shall enact no law abridging] the right of the people peaceably to assemble.” That does not mean you can gather an angry lynch mob for street justice, it does not mean you can incite a riot or take part in a riot. It means you may peacefully assemble, whether to protest or take part in a religious ceremony. It must be peaceful otherwise it runs afoul of the Constitution itself.

By gathering to protest in the manner that WBC uses, they are deliberately and openly trying to incite violence against themselves. Once someone comes within light years of said violence, they videotape it (or use a counter-protester’s video) and proclaim it from the highest point they can find. They have rights, but so do we. The Snyders had rights, too. What happens when rights collide? Do we merely revert to the tried-and-true First Amendment argument that blankets all protest activity and give them a pass to cheerfully incite us to violence so they can have their self-fulfilling martyrdom?

Or do we agree that the First Amendment also covers those of us who wish to grieve in peace?

The American Legion has set up a fund to help Mr. Snyder pay his legal fees. Click here to find out how you can help.

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2 thoughts on “When Rights Collide

  1. I have to agree that we need to protect the free speech of everyone, regardless of how ignorant or disgusting we may think they are. As long as they stay off private property and don’t harm anyone’s property or body there’s not really much we can do I’m afraid. The best thing to do is to just ignore them. I know it’s hard to do when they are making a mockery of a loved one’s death. But I have the feeling that if everywhere they went, the were ignored by everyone and got no news coverage…that would be the one thing that they would hate most. I agree 100% that they love the attention.

  2. Ratboi:

    You make some very valid points. The Phelps mafia isn’t the most savvy group at getting the media to show. But they do manage to grab attention everywhere they go. Why feed into it?

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