Westboro case sounds right, but feels wrong

You can talk forever about the sanctity of the First Amendment.

And then you talk to the father.

You can patiently explain why even hateful protests must be protected.

And then you talk to the father.

You can boast of how America’s freedom of speech inspires robust debate on sensitive topics.

And then you talk to the father.

And you’re not so sure.

Five years ago last week, Albert Snyder buried his son, Matthew, a soldier, who died fighting in Iraq. Matthew wasn’t a public figure. Neither was Albert nor his family. They simply wanted to put Matthew’s body in the ground, weep for his loss and hold tight to each other.

As most of us would want to do.

Enter another family, the Phelps family, members of the Westboro Baptist Church of Topeka, Kan., whose leader, Fred Phelps, is a hatemonger of the lowest kind – the kind who wraps himself in a phony cloak of righteousness.

Westboro chose Matthew’s funeral in Westminster, Md., to make one of its frequent stinks. Members picketed near the entrance, screaming, holding up vile and disgusting signs. They didn’t know him. Never met him. Didn’t care.

“They positioned themselves 30 feet from the main entrance,” Albert Snyder says. “And they held a sign depicting two men having anal sex. I had little nieces there. Children.”

You’re so sure of principle.

And then you talk to the father.

A right to grieve in peace?

The Supreme Court ruled in favor of Westboro in Snyder’s suit against it this past week. Arguing the familiar point that no matter how ugly speech gets, it’s still speech and we can’t go limiting it, the justices voted, 8-1.

Only Justice Samuel Alito dissented, saying the First Amendment “is not a license for the vicious verbal assault that occurred in this case.” And that Snyder “wanted what is surely the right of any parent who experiences such an incalculable loss: to bury his son in peace.”

Instead, the Westboro kooks turned that moment into something else. They picketed. They chanted. They screamed, “God hates fags!”

“When I went back to work, people came up to me and said, ‘I didn’t know your son was gay,'” Albert Snyder said. “He wasn’t. But anybody riding past that scene, that’s the first thing they’re going to think.”

What right does Westboro have to slant a private citizen’s funeral that way? Do the ideals of robust debate and varying points of view really apply to pure, unadulterated hate – the kind Westboro spews, claiming our children are raised for the devil and that God hates America?

Sure, there is sanctity to the First Amendment. But isn’t there sanctity to a funeral, to a family’s right to grieve in peace?

You think it’s all about principle.

And then you talk to the father.

A right to bully others?

“The government has no problem sending our young men and women to wars, they come back in body bags, and they can’t have enough respect to protect the families?” Snyder asks. “I’ve been through this for five years with these (Westboro) people. They say now their pickets are going to quadruple. Well, I’ve got news for them. Eventually, they’re going to pick the wrong funeral…. They’re gonna do the wrong one, and somebody’s gonna show up with a gun … and heaven forbid someone innocent is shot….

“The Supreme Court justices don’t have to worry … because if something happens to them or someone in their family, (Westboro) will never get within a thousand feet. When Elizabeth Edwards died … the closest they got was 2 miles….

“The saddest thing? I had a parent tell me today that their kid came home from school and said, ‘I guess we can bully anyone now, because it’s free speech.’ That’s what the Phelpses do. They bully people at the worst time of their lives.”

The easy thing in a newspaper is to say you understand, nod your head sympathetically, but support the sacred right of free speech, which, after all, is a cornerstone of what we do. Some in our business even don a cape of nobility when defending it.

But the Supreme Court just made a decision that blesses Westboro, which hates this country, and curses the Snyders, who love it.

You can talk all you want.

Then you listen to the father. And you know this is wrong.

Contact Mitch Albom: 313-223-4581 or malbom@freepress.com

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