“The only way for a different ruling is to shred the First Amendment,” said Margie Phelps, the lawyer defending the minister of the Westboro Church. Members of the church routinely demonstrate at the funerals of soldiers who have died in in the service. In a 8 to 1 margin, the United States Supreme Court ruled in favor of the church’s right to continue those demonstrations.
In May of 2006, Albert Synder held funeral services for his son, Matthew, who died from a non combat-related vehicle accident in Al Anbar province, Iraq. Members of the Westboro Baptist Church of Topeka, Kansas demonstrated at the funeral. Church members believe that the military is being punished by God for the country’s tolerance of homosexuality. A few weeks after the funeral, Albert Synder found a particularly hateful poem on the internet by Margie Phelps. It was about Synder’s son and how terribly he was raised. Synder sued the church for emotional distress. Lower courts sided with Synder, but the Phelps pursued the case to the Supreme Court.
The Responsible Community wrote about the suit when it reached the Supreme Court last fall, “Phelps is disgusting, but should receive our support.” The closing of that post was, “it would be difficult for the Supreme Court to rule any other way other then expressing their disgust with the church even though they support their right to say it.”
Chief Justice John Roberts didn’t disappoint. Writing the opinion for the majority, he said, "Speech is powerful. It can stir people to action, move them to tears of both joy and sorrow, and — as it did here — inflict great pain. On the facts before us, we cannot react to that pain by punishing the speaker."
No right has any value if it can’t be expressed. To silence the members of this church would be to deny the most fundamental of all rights, the freedom of expression. If that expression causes harm that can be measured in the loss of property, defames someone or places people in harm’s way then it can be restricted. But, the content of their speech was a political opinion that just happened to involve Synder. The frequency of the demonstrations and the church’s practice of showing up at the military funerals of Catholics, Jews and many other groups clearly indicates they were expressing an outrage of policy, not of Synder or his son.
As the father of a son, I can only image the pain that Albert Synder experienced when reading those hateful words. But, if we silenced all speech that caused pain, we would silence one of the things that makes us strong, the public forum of ideas that allow us to self examine our collective soul.