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First amendment applies to all, even Phelps

“God hates fags.”

“You’re going to hell.”

Fred Phelps and six fellow protestors make such claims as Matthew Snyder’s body is lowered to the ground. Snyder’s loved ones stand silently, grieving over their loss. The protestors continue.

Cpl. Snyder’s Humvee crashed in Iraq in March 2006. Albert Synder, Matthew’s father, sued Phelps for the intentional infliction of emotional distress. He won $5 million. However, the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals reversed the verdict deciding that the First Amendment protected Phelps’s speech.

The U.S. Supreme Court heard the arguments of Snyder vs. Phelps on Oct. 6. The verdict won’t be reached for months despite the four-plus years of struggle for Albert Snyder.

Phelps is the founder of Westboro Baptist Church, the notorious Kansas-based group that preaches Americans are doomed for hell because of American’s tolerance for homosexuality. Westboro has picketed at hundreds of military funerals. Their actions led President Bush to sign into law the Respect for America’s Fallen Heroes Act in May 2006, which prohibited protests within 300 feet of the entrance to any cemeteries of veterans 60 minutes before and after a funeral. Despite this, the protestors continue, and Phelps’s right to free speech is protected. He did not claim that Matthew Snyder was gay. He did not come within 300 feet of the funeral. Essentially, Phelps’s actions are within the law.

As a journalist and American citizen, I want to protect Phelps’s right to speak about whatever he desires: “Congress shall make no law…prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech…or the right of the people peaceably to assemble.” Phelps protested the funeral in a nonviolent manner, while cooperating with the police. No one was physically harmed.

The Supreme Court will decide if Snyder can incite Phelps for emotional damage. According to the First Amendment, Phelps’s actions are completely protected. Phelps remains under the security and promise of American freedoms. The Constitution distincly defines America from tyrannies around the world. Americans hold liberty close to their hearts. I find great pride in this country where I don’t need to fear persecution, interrogation by the government or a dictatorship that strips humans of their dignity.

I think we can all agree that Phelps actions were not compassionate to Albert Snyder’s situation. I believe the justices will have a difficult time deciding the matter. Snyder’s lawyers will surely raise the issue of hate speech, unprotected speech that attacks a social group or a member of such a group. One could argue that Phelps’s protest was unnecessary and hurtful. Members of the Snyder family say Matthew was not gay. This would then deem the protest inappropriate and essential to the grief of the family. Although I don’t condone Phelps’s actions, I truly believe the Supreme Court must uphold the First Amendment and side with Westboro on this case. As an American citizen, Phelps deserves the full protection of the law. If his speech is taken away then could yours could be, too. What will freedoms be then?

Wallentin is a sophomore news/Internet major and can be contacted at jaclyn.wallentin@drake.edu

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2 Comments

  1. Bill November 16, 2010

    Yet, the first amendment does not apply to gay citizens.

    The ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ military policy is proof of that.

    An important note to consider as a news major, no?

    Yet no mention of gay citizens’ first amendment rights being trampled, but rather, a defense of those who seek to cause harm.

    I hope you will think about that, Wallentin.

  2. Michael E. Webber December 6, 2010

    Nearly every other country has a ban on hate speech. Does hate speech promote any good? We all are aware that Phelps is in love with publicity and enjoys testing the limits of free speech. Banning hate speech would not lead to a full-out assault on freedom of speech.

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