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Why Did Supreme Court Rule In Favor Of Church’s Right To Protest?

Audio

Aired 3/3/11

The Westboro Baptist Church has angered many by protesting at military funerals and other events. The church protesters often hold signs with anti-gay messages and say things like "Thank God for Dead Soldiers." Despite the church's offensive messages, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the First Amendment protects their right to protest, and use signs containing what many consider hurtful speech. KPBS Guest Military Blogger Beth Ford Roth joins us to explain the Supreme Court's ruling.

A September 2009 photo of Westboro Baptist Church protesters.
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Above: A September 2009 photo of Westboro Baptist Church protesters.

The Westboro Baptist Church has angered many by protesting at military funerals and other events. The church protesters often hold signs with anti-gay messages and say things like "Thank God for Dead Soldiers." Despite the church's offensive messages, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the First Amendment protects their right to protest, and use signs containing what many consider hurtful speech. KPBS Guest Military Blogger Beth Ford Roth joins us to explain the Supreme Court's ruling.

Guest

Beth Ford Roth, KPBS Guest Military Blogger. You can read her posts at homepost.kpbs.org.

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This is a rush transcript created by a contractor for KPBS to improve accessibility for the deaf and hard-of-hearing. Please refer to the media file as the formal record of this interview. Opinions expressed by guests during interviews reflect the guest’s individual views and do not necessarily represent those of KPBS staff, members or its sponsors.

CAVANAUGH: The U.S. Supreme Court says picket signs near military funerals are protected by the first amendment. I'm Maureen Cavanaugh, coming up on These Days, some military families are outraged, but the justices say the protests by a small church group are protected speech. Then we examine the life and work of 20th century photographer Imogen Cunningham. Her work stretched the boundaries of what both photography and women artists could do. And then a little bit of Rio comes to San Diego in today's weekend preview. That's all ahead this hour on These Days. First the news.

I'm Maureen Cavanaugh and you're listening to These Days on KPBS. The U.S. Supreme Court ruling Wednesday that allowed a church group to continue to picket near military funerals disappointed some military families. But eight of the nine Supreme Court justices determined that even though the protests of a small Kansas church are hurtful, they are protected by the first amendment. Joining me to discuss the high court ruling is Beth Ford Roth, she's KPBS guest military blogger. You can read her blog at homepost dot KPBS.org. Welcome back.

ROTH: Thank you so much, great to be here.

CAVANAUGH: Well, tell us a lot bit about the west burro Baptist church. What are they and why are they picketing?

ROTH: Well, it's -- they're a very interesting group of people am they're actually all family members of this man named Fred Phelps, and there's about a hundred of them. And they all live on in compound in Topeka Kansas. And they're actually very educated people. 11 of Fred's 13 children have law degrees, and actually one of those children, Margie Phelps, was the one who argued the case before the Supreme Court. So it's easy to sort of think of them as this uneducated yokels, but they're actually very intelligent people. And they have a very profitable law firm in Topeka Kansas, and they make quite a bit of money from that, and they're able to go around and picket these funerals based on the money they earn.

CAVANAUGH: Well, one of the reasons it might be easy to think of this as members of an educated fringe group is because of how they picket these military funerals of tell us a little bit about that.

ROTH: Well, they have this belief that God is punishing the United States with wars in Iraq and Afghanistan because of this country's tolerance of gays and lesbians. And so they feel it's their Christian duty, and I'm saying that, you know, little finger quotes in the air.

CAVANAUGH: Yes, yes.

ROTH: To go to these different military funerals, and to picket with extraordinarily offensive signs saying, you know, God hates soldiers, and that kind of thing. Just to get their point across that the reason these young men are dying, young men and women are dying is because of God's wrath. This is their belief.

CAVANAUGH: Now, where did this particular case originate that ended up at the U.S. Supreme Court?

ROTH: Well, a man named Albert Snyder was attending the funeral of his son, Matthew Snyder who died in Iraq in 2006, and the Westboro Baptist Church parishioners were there picketing, and apparently he didn't see them at the funeral. But later he went on line and looked at different videos and saw it and was so extraordinarily upset that he file aid lawsuit against Fred Phelps for emotional distress, and in that case, he was awarded $11 million for that emotional distress. A judge reduced that amount to $5 million. And later a appeals court overturned that ruling and then that's how it went to the Supreme Court.

CAVANAUGH: So this basically was the result of a civil action that this man took against the west burro Baptist church for causing him distress. And what -- therefore, what did the Supreme Court actually rule? What was their reasoning?

ROTH: Well, judge Roberts wrote that as, you know, as hateful as the speech may be, it is protected under the first amendment. And if you think about it, it is hateful speech and speech that we find disgusting that needs to be protected. Because the speech we all like, no one's gonna get upset about it. So basically even though this is hateful and abhorrent and offensive, it is protected under the first amendment. And I talked it a law professor yesterday, Glen Smith from California western school of law, and he wanted me to know that it's a very narrow ruling about these protests specifically, you know, they're a thousand feet from the funeral, and they listen to the police. So this isn't sort of a free reign now for people to come out and do horrible protests whenever they want for military funerals of it's a very narrow ruling.

CAVANAUGH: There was one dissenting justice, and he ruled against the church protests and for the man who won the award for emotional distress. Why did he rule in the emotional distress favor?

ROTH: Well, this was Justice Alito, and he wrote very passionately as well. And he felt that this man, Albert Snyder, had a right to privacy, a right to mourn, and that that right was protected more than the free speech rights of the church, which is kind of interesting. I was discussing this with my husband this morning, and we sort of were wondering that Alito ruled in favor of Citizens United saying corporations had these free speech rights, but yet these individual single people don't have free speech rights. So --

CAVANAUGH: I understand, well, and the eight other justices on the high court disagreed with justice Alito on this. How did the Westboro Baptist church respond to the decision.

ROTH: Well, Margie Phelps, the woman who argued the case in front of the Supreme Court said she wasn't surprised that there was only one way they could go because the first amendment is very clear. And now the church has said they plan to quadruple the number of protests at military funerals, so they have been quite emboldened by this decision.

CAVANAUGH: This must be heart breaks for the families involved who are burying their loved ones and actually have to put up with this.

ROTH: I mean, I can't imagine. It's such a private, sensitive time. And I would imagine you'd want to be surrounded by people who loved the person that you lost, and to have that kind of hate and vitriol right there in front of you would be devastating. But again, it's sort of the irony of our military, they go out and they fight for us to protect the constitution, and part of the constitution is the first amendment, and that first amendment protects the free speech rights of the military -- or the people protesting at military funerals. So it's -- it's terribly ironic, but it's all part of what makes this country great.

CAVANAUGH: I want to thank you for explaining this, Beth, thanks so much.

ROTH: Oh, you're welcome, it was great to be here.

CAVANAUGH: Both Ford Roth is KPBS guest military blogger. You can read her blog at Homepost.kpbs.org. If you would like to comment on line, you can go to KPBS.org/These Days. Now, coming up, we explore the vision of 20th century photographer, Imogen Cunningham. That's as These Days continues here on KPBS.

Comments

Avatar for user 'marshvet11'

marshvet11 | March 3, 2011 at 10:18 a.m. ― 3 years, 4 months ago

If they can protest from 1000 feet away then I dont see why they cant just protest across town somewhere else. I think that they have perverted the point of free speech. This is not free speech, this is using a man/womans funeral to push a selfish political agenda. Shame on you supreme court. I just hope this changes at some point.

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Avatar for user 'bloodandoil666'

bloodandoil666 | March 10, 2011 at 10:55 p.m. ― 3 years, 4 months ago

Maybe you should just sing Americanischland ist der Vaterland by yourself and be happy.

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Avatar for user 'sweegar'

sweegar | June 22, 2011 at 10:22 a.m. ― 3 years, 1 month ago

Are these people really Christians? What would Jesus do? They are showing so much disrespect for the people defending our country. It needs to stop right now.

( | suggest removal )