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Snyder vs. Phelps et al. Lesson in 1st Amendment Rights

06/03/2011

Snyder v. Phelps et al. is perhaps not one of those landmark legal cases that will make it into the history books, but for those of us interested in how to protect lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people from harassment, and particularly those young people at school, the lessons learned from this case are significant. They are significant not only because they give a clear direction for those living in the United States (U.S.) on how First Amendment protections have been used to promote hateful messages, but to those of us outside the U.S., it offers an insight into the challenges many law-abiding Americans face in ensuring their own safety and that of others from emotional and, ultimately, physical harm.

Snyder v. Phelps et al. is not a case where an individual was persecuted because of her or his sexual orientation or preference. It revolves around a father’s desire to lay his son to rest, and the decision of the Westboro Baptist Church (WBC) and members of the Phelps family to picket the funeral. Marine Lance Corporal Matthew Snyder was only 20 years old when he died in a non-combat related vehicle accident on the 3rd March, 2006 in Iraq. Following repatriation, his funeral took place in Westminster, Maryland (MD) on the 10th March, 2006. Matthew was not gay; he was, like many other young Americans, a loving son, born and raised Roman Catholic, who joined the U.S. Marine Corps when he was 18 years old to serve his country. Matthew’s father, Albert or ‘Al’ Snyder having witnessed members of the WBC picket prior to his son’s funeral, filed a compaint in the MD District Court alledging that Church members intruded upon his son’s funeral and subsequently defamed him on their webpage, causing physical and emotional damage. Following various court proceedings in which WBC successfully countered the allegations made against them and the damages awarded to Mr. Snyder at appeal, a petition for a Writ of Certiorari was filed with the Supreme Court to seek a judicial review of the lower courts’ decisions (including the successful appeal). The case was argued before the Supreme Court on the 6th October, 2010 and the majority decision by the Court was decided on the 2nd March, 2011. The appeal court ruling was affirmed with a majority vote of eight to one.

Why is this case so important? At the heart of the arguments heard before the Supreme Court lay the “special protections” offered by the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution – the rights of free exercise of religion, free speech, freedom of the press, peaceful assembly, and the prohibition of laws that allow individuals or groups to seek redress of grievances by their government. While it was perhaps not James Madison’s intention that the First Amendment (introduced to the First U.S. Congress as part of the Bill of Rights in 1789 and ratified in 1791) would be used to promulgate messages that Chief Justice Roberts said, “may fall short of refined socal and political commentary”, he argued that WBC were offering their opinion on, “the politcial and moral conduct of the United States and its citizens, the fate of our Nation, homosexuality in the military, and scandals involving the Catholic clergy”. But what had this to do with Albert Snyder and, more importantly, why was the funeral of his late son targeted?

I’m looking very carefully into this case and will be writing an article on the implications for LGBTs. While I am neither a lawyer or a constitutional historian, I do find this particular ruling very helpful in crystallising my understanding of First Amendment rights in the U.S. Watch this space.

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