prof. e.

Mass Communication, [multi]media, methodology and much, much more!

Supreme Court Wrestles with Despicable Speech

Posted by prof e on October 6, 2010

We all know that most speech is protected by the First Amendment of the Constitution. There are a few exception, e.g., obscenity, defamation (libel and slander), and incitement to imminent lawless action. But the general consensus is that the First Amendment also protects crazy and hateful ideas like those espoused by Fred Phelps, who, with his small group of followers, pickets military funerals and spews hateful rhetoric about military deaths being divine retribution for America’s tolerance of gays.

In Snyder v. Phelps, the father of a slain soldier is asking the Supreme Court to rule against Phelps and speech that includes the waving signs outside the funerals  of a fallen serviceman that proclaim, “God Hates America” and “God Hates Fags” and “Thank God for Dead Soldiers.”

The road to the Supreme Court involved decisions both for and against Phelps.
Snyder sued Phelps and his followers for “defamation, invasion of privacy, and intentional infliction of emotional distress.” Snyder was awarded nearly $11M in damages in the original court case. Phelps appealed and the damages were reduced to $5M. Then a federal appellate court overturned the decision, thus setting up the battle in the Supreme Court.

Support for the families of fallen soldiers is widespread among veterans groups. Also, politicians from both the right and the left have spoken out in favor of a ruling that would restrict this sort of speech. However, there are plenty of folks, e.g., the ACLU and most media companies, on the other side of the issue who are holding their noses while voicing support for a decision that would allow Phelps and his followers to continue their antics.

Whose side are YOU on?


19 Responses to “Supreme Court Wrestles with Despicable Speech”

  1. AJ Dome said

    Part 1: $11 million doesn’t seem like enough to me… but suing Fred Phelps isn’t very rewarding anyway. Phelps is a trained lawyer, born from a family of lawyers. I think the BEST thing the United States of America can do is IGNORE FRED PHELPS. I know it’s difficult, but ignorance is indeed bliss.

    Part 2: The 1st Amendment cannot be infringed upon. Period. However, there are loopholes through everything. For every one of Phelps’ brain-washed followers, there are roughly 7 Patriot Guard riders on site to silence them with the sound of revving motorcycles. It gets my red American blood stirring, but that’s beside the point. The best way to solve problems like Phelps is to spawn more good things like the Patriot Guard. “All that is wrong in America can be fixed by all that is right in America.”

  2. Ulysses B said

    God doesn’t and will never have any kind of hatred in his heart, this doesn’t mean im taking any side cause im not but if God wanted us to be in relationships with the same sex then he would have created ‘Adam’ and ‘Mike’ instead of ‘Adam’ and ‘Eve’. I have no bad blood with ‘gays’ but I will not be around them or associated with them at all. In the military you have to have a certan mind set and gays i don’t think have that mind set, especially when they’re more into their feelings than a female. Even though i can’t determine what another person has or don’t have, when you can’t decide what gender you are how can you in any way have the right mind set to succeed in the military or defend a nation when your having trouble defending who you really are.

  3. Corey Caves said

    i think this is a very touchy subject and lots can be said about both sides. I believe that anyone has the right to say and be who they want to be but proclaiming it to others so you can feel more important about yourself is wrong. let be people who they want to be. god has made everyone individuals and there is no one same person in this world. i think that this is a great country and we need to stand for what we believe in whether it be military, god, or gays.

  4. Daisy Mendoza said

    It is very difficult for me to choose a side because I do believe that we all have the freedom of speech and we should be able to voice our opinion no matter what it may be. However, I do think that it is very disrespectful for people like these “Phelps Followers” to be doing what they are doing because it is very rude and ignorant. Especially when so many families are already heartbroken for losing a loved one. I would support Snyder because what these people are doing is harrassing people, and that’s not right.

  5. The first amendment was made to protect a individuals freedom of speech but not to enforce ignorant and hurtful speech. Yes it protects it and there is not much that can be done but like the other students have said it is hurtful to the suffering families and although it might be hard to be ignored that is the best solution. As discussed in class people sometimes do things for attention especially from the media, so the best way to stop speech like this or at least slow it down is to simply ignore it. Truly there are many other ways people can share their opinion that are not disrespectful to others.

  6. Jishirll Clifton said

    First of all there is a such of thing as freedom of speech I get and understand that, but I think you should at least have enough respect for this man not to be at the funeral saying those types of hateful things, one of us is no better than anybody else we have all sinned and for them to be outside his funeral with signs that say those hateful things, is judgement, and God doesnt want us to judge people either as far as that goes. Now I totally disagree with this form of ignorance and I think that they look worse than the man they are trying to put down. What a shame.

  7. Alex Timmons said

    I think the decision to hold our nose and support a decision that allows even this manner of free speech is probably correct. I also think that Phelps should pay Snyder damages for the emotional distress, but that’s an indefensible personal belief of my own. It’s a slippery slope argument, and if students of media think about it, facing a possible penalty for exercising the right of free speech will actually stifle the presentation of useful ideas and worthwhile controversies that potentially produce greater public benefit. Those of you who haven’t studied media law yet will see how these parameters have been established in the court system soon enough.

    Anyhow, it’s funny to me to notice how the Phelp’s followers, who claim to know what God likes or dislikes about individuals, society or the country, use a thinking style no different than many of you who posted responses here. At first, I was tempted to cut responders a little slack, as I realize many of you are young and have little life experience to help you ponder these questions. Then I looked again at the photo of the idiotic picketers – they’re old and should know better, but they don’t. All of you are suffering from the tragic disease of arrested development and conventional wisdom, which will cause you to recycle and fail to solve these types of problems for the remainder of your life. How do any of you have the audacity to think you know what God really thinks about anything? How do religious moderates have the bollocks to believe that your reading of biblical text is any more sanctified and God-like than the meaning derived by religious extremists? Afterall, “God doesn’t like us to judge others”, but if “he wanted same sex marriages, he would have made Adam and Eve — not Adam and Steve.”

    What many of you advocated as a response to the outrageous views espoused by your fellow religious believers was rather ostrich-like. Just bury your heads in the sand and ignore the vile remarks made by these morons — rather than exercise your right of free speech and speak out against them in return. So just remember that the next time the president of a majority Christian nation decides to push a button and incinerate 100,000 people with a nuclear weapon or a group of terrorists decide to fly planes into buildings for sheer spectacle. You were afforded the right to speak out against the views of any group you wish, but didn’t.

  8. Alex Timmons said

    Correction to a sentence in my last post: Afterall, “God doesn’t like us to judge others”, but if “he wanted same sex marriages, he would have made Adam and Steve — not Adam and Eve.”

    Also, Dr. E., I’m sure you’ve heard about the controversy with Juan Williams and NPR. It would be interesting to see how students dissect that one.

  9. Matt Porter said

    Its rude to be doing this at a funeral in my eyes because its not respectful at all. You really have to be a messed up person to be holding signs up reading “Thank God for dead soliders”. I think everyone has the choice of being who they want and decide what they want to say. Im on Snyder’s side in this article.

  10. Manuel Crespin said

    It surprises me to see how many people feel that this act is crude, but still are against the idea of homosexuality in general. Homosexuality should never be a factor for why people stand outside a court and protest. Of all the things in the world that humans are struggling with, this should not be an essential argument amongst Americans. We stand tall as patriots, and support all soldiers who are still fighting on this day. Whether they be; black, white, gay, or straight, we are all the same in God’s eyes. But it is how we act on our situations that we can be judged upon. Phelps should be sued for much more than $11 million. The emotional stress and sadness that people endured, should never come from American heroes especially. I am for sure on Snyder’s side because he is not looking for another reason to fight, like Phelps. He is looking to help create peace in a world thats not. Yes, we have the right to speak out for what we believe in. Before we start accusing others of foul lifestyles, maybe we should look at our own. Let he who is without sin, cast the first stone.

  11. Ben Long said

    To me, the whole, “I have the freedom of speech so I can say what I want” stance is ridiculous. Just because you CAN say something, most certainly does not mean you should. Although not necessarily illegal, I can go around and insult people I meet and generally humiliate people I have conversation with. It would be irrational to expect no negative consequences to arise from that situation. So, yes, you can say whatever you want, but you are ultimately humiliating yourself when you attack innocent people.

  12. Angelica Harvey said

    This to me is a prime example of how ignorant people can be. I understand that freedom of speech is protected by the First Amendment so there isn’t much that can be done about people like this, but it doesn’t mean that this behavior is acceptable. It also isnt realistic to expect everyone to have respect for certain people and situations because no one person is the same or was necessarily raised the “right” way.People have very different ideas of whats right or wrong and are going to do and say what they want regardless, but just because you are given that right does not mean that you should use, abuse, and twist it to your own personal advantage. Im sure if the tables were turned on Phelps he wouldnt appreciate disparaging remarks being made about someone or something that was important to him, so why do it to others? Why do people feel the need to kick others when they are down? I do believe that there is a time and place for everything, but hateful things such as this serve no purpose. All it does is cause more unnecessary grief to the innocent and reflects poorly on the morals and standards of those involved in the other party.

  13. Alex Miller said

    I think that the first amendment should be upheld no matter what. If you stop following the first ammendment than it gives way for thousands of other cases to have the slight chance of dodging the laws of America. Even though I fully support our troops I think that the first ammendment right must prevail over anything in order to protect the spiritual effective meaning of the ammendments. The protesting signs were offensive and disgusting but legal.

  14. The first amendment was agreed upon long ago by our ancestors and should still remain today. The speaking of words has never killed anybody, as in the words doing the killing. Hate will still exist no matter what you do, the same for sex, stealing, drug use, racism etc. so let it be. It is by nature that man is this way, if there were a cure for such things it would have been developed a long time ago. “There is nothing new under the sun”. I’m sure everyone has heard the phrase and for the most part it stands true. If the first amendment was to be changed due to such behavior, it would be the start of a slippery slope that our Court system may not recover from. So leave the laws as be, and let nature take its natural course.

  15. Becca Guillen said

    I think that this is extremely touchy. People who have lost loved ones do not need people picketing their funerals. It is a hard enough time already. I understand that people have the freedom to do it but at the same time don’t these people have enough respect to know that losing a loved one is hard enough without people protesting their funerals because they were a member of the military. Maybe the family wasn’t necessarily happy with them joining the military and now that they’re gone these people are not making life easier or better for anyone.

  16. Dom Harris said

    God hates no man, why would he hate something he created himself? Therefore when people do something like this it’s just flat out wrong. Who pickets at funerals of dead soldiers fighting for freedoms of not only Americans but other courtiers as well? This doesn’t make any sense to me this is a prime example of the ignorance of some people. But I don’t just blame these people i blame their parents as well. Whoever taught them to have such hatred in their hearts or just didn’t teach them anything like respect. Respect the fact that some people are different like gays, or just be respectful enough to keep your mouth shut. I feel sorry for people like this; because when it’s their turn to speak with the man upstairs if they believe in him what will he say?

  17. Vanessa Emerson said

    This is a hard topic to debate and make an agreeable final decision on. However I believe when it comes down to the final decision or choosing, the first amendment should hold strong and stand as is. While it may not be morally right to state and publically show hate signs, it is also a freedom of expression and speech and the words being shown or expressed are not causing physical bodily harm to its victims. If you allow one law to be changed, then it opens up the door for many other laws to be questioned and that is a slippery slope I’m believe the Supreme Courts would want to avoid.

  18. M. Williamson said

    This article upset me a bit. It amazed me that people would have so much hate and insensitivity in their hearts. I don’t want to beat a dead horse, but God hates no man and loves all of His children. That being said I am on Snyder’s side. Yes there is freedom of speech, but let me just remind you that the only reason you have that right is because of the service men and women who have sacrificed their lives and continue to fight for it. Its so easy to take advantage of our rights, but are you willing to defend them to the point of your life being on the line??

  19. Victoria Gibson said

    This literally makes my blood boil. When anyone in the military swares in before they go off to training they sware to protect the Constitution “from all enemies foreign and domestic.” They are dying to let these crazies picket their own funerals… If they are so unhappy with how the United States is being run and all of our laws then there’s the door. More than one of Phelps’s daughters has law degrees, he stated to a new’s reporter that the money he recieved from the appeal will go to protesting at more miltary funerals and unfortunately more than anything all they want is attention and they are getting it in the most disrespectful way imaginable. What happened to being able to assemble PEACEFULLY especially in a time of mourning? In a round about way, by protesting the soldiers’ funerals, through them dying to protect the Constitution, they are protesting their own rights under the First Amendment. Now how can you win a case by protesting the protection of your rights?

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