Inside the Supreme Court's Free-Speech Showdown

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Carolyn Kaster / AP

Members of the Westboro Baptist Church picket in front of the Supreme Court

"Is this a joke?" a befuddled young woman asked as she stood outside the Supreme Court on the morning of Oct. 6. She was staring at members of the Kansas-based Westboro Baptist Church, who were wearing sweatshirts emblazoned with the church's website, A 9-year-old boy, a grandson of Westboro founder Fred Phelps, stood as tall as his tiny body allowed, holding a "God Hates You" sign. But these churchgoers, who believe all Americans are hell-bound because of the country's tolerance for gays, weren't just shouting about the evils of homosexuality. They were also demeaning Jews — because Jews killed Jesus, don't you know? — and calling Catholic churches dog kennels because, as one Westboro member explained, priests are gay and molest children.


Westboro members have carried out hate-filled demonstrations like this one every day for the past 19 years, staging their protests outside places like high school plays and military funerals. On Oct. 6, they assembled in front of the Supreme Court as it prepared to hear oral arguments in the case of Snyder v. Phelps, which pits the grieving father of a Marine killed in Iraq against Westboro, a 70-member congregation in Topeka that consists almost entirely of Fred Phelps' extended family.

In March 2006, seven Westboro members picketed the Maryland funeral of Lance Corporal Matthew Snyder, who died when his humvee crashed in Iraq. The Westboro protesters flew more than 1,000 miles so they could hold signs with messages like "Thank God for Dead Soldiers," "You're Going to Hell" and "Thank God for IEDs." Matthew's father Albert Snyder, citing the physical and mental trauma that resulted from being confronted by the group at his only son's funeral, filed a lawsuit against Westboro. A jury found the church liable for intentional infliction of emotional distress, invasion of privacy and civil conspiracy, and awarded Albert $10.9 million in damages (which the trial judge later reduced to $5 million). The Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals, however, reversed the verdict, ruling that the First Amendment protected Westboro's speech.

The emotionally charged case, which raises questions about when public commentary becomes personal harassment and whether there should be limits on freedom of speech at the funerals of private citizens, has received more attention than any other before the Supreme Court this term. The line to get one of the coveted seats inside the court that are reserved for the public snaked around the block toward Independence Avenue. "I got a golden ticket," bragged David Overhuls, a second-year student at Georgetown Law School who had camped out overnight for the hearing; when he arrived at 10 p.m., about 40 people were already waiting in line. Some had arrived on Monday, Oct. 4.

In the run-up to the oral arguments, eager college kids and law students argued over the details of the case with several members of the Phelps family (the 9-year-old not included). The discourse was civil — for the most part. "Appellate courts get s____ wrong all the time," Overhuls shouted during one of the more heated exchanges. When one of the Phelpses paused to check a text message, a student mocked him, saying, "God hates cell phones."

Meanwhile, Sam Garrett, a freshman at George Washington, stripped down to his underwear and held a sign of his own: "Fred Phelps Wishes He Were Hot like Me." Garrett, who is gay, sashayed over to where the Phelpses were assembled, to the delight of the youthful crowd.

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