Should the Highest Court Protect the Ugliest Speech?

A religious group pickets soldiers' funerals and taunts their families. Now the Supreme Court will decide if the First Amendment protects this kind of hatemongering

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Ryan Pfluger for TIME

Albert Snyder, at his home in York, Pa., rerouted his son's funeral procession to try to avoid the strangers who flew more than 1,000 miles to brandish slogans like "God hates you."

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"This case really cries out for 'just this once,'" says Tom Goldstein, an attorney who has argued 22 cases before the Supreme Court and publishes SCOTUS Blog. "We have to protect this family and the memory of the soldiers who gave their lives in the ultimate sacrifice. But it's very hard to write a legal rule like that."

Westboro opponents are hoping the court will comment on, if not uphold outright, state laws that restrict funeral picketing. The court could encourage states to write stronger statutes. In Kansas, for example, Westboro can't picket within 150 ft. (46 m) of a church an hour before a funeral starts or return to the area until two hours after the ceremony ends. But as the Snyder case shows, Westboro can inflict plenty of damage beyond that buffer zone.

No Regret

Al Snyder rests a box on the dining-room table of his modest ranch house in York, Pa., and starts pulling out handwritten notes, typed letters, cards and other keepsakes. One couple wrote, "We think you are a wonderful example of a father's love and devotion. Not only is Matthew an American hero, so are you." He's got three more boxes like this one upstairs. The overwhelming support from strangers--on his couch sits a quilt, covered in encouraging notes, from grade-schoolers in Hawaii--often brings comfort to Snyder. But sometimes, when he is trying to get his mind off the Phelpses or simply run errands around town, people will recognize him, share how much they're pulling for him and inadvertently reopen the wounds.

Still, Snyder insists he has no regret about pushing the lawsuit against the Phelpses. "If this is what I have to live with to stop them from doing it to other people, it's worth it threefold," he says. He can even laugh at some of the absurdity. Like when he had to stop watching the HBO drama Big Love, which chronicles a polygamist family in Utah, because the cultlike compound where some characters live reminded him of the Phelpses. Or when he hears that the Westboro founder called him pathetic. "Grow up, Fred," Snyder says. "You're 80. You're about to meet the devil when you die."

The original version of this article, which appeared in the October 4, 2010 issue of TIME, has been updated

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