Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Westboro Baptist Church: The First Amendment challenges

The Supreme Court has decided, for the first time, to consider the free speech questions brought up by The father of a U.S. Marine killed in the line of duty, Albert Snyder originally brought the case that can be heard by the court. The first listening to of the case resulted in Albert Snyder being awarded an $ 8 million judgment. Westboro Baptist Church had liens on their property, as they could not pay this judgment with even the cheapest personal loans. The main question under debate is if the extreme hate speech used by the Westboro Baptist Church falls under protection of the First Amendment.

What is the Westboro Baptist Church

The Westboro Baptist Church was founded in 1955. The Westboro Baptist Church claims affiliation with Primitive Baptist and Calvinist principles, but it is not affiliated with any Baptist church and most Primitive Baptists shun the Westboro Baptist Church. Based in Topeka, the Westboro Baptist Church protests funerals, gay pride events, pop concerts, football games, and statehouses. The church wants to spread their message that is anti-religious, anti-Jewish and anti-homosexuality. The leaders and members of the Westboro Baptist Church are specifically blackballed from entering the U.K. for their “unacceptable behavior by inciting hatred”.

The legal challenges of the Westboro Baptist Church

The members of Westboro Baptist Church have faced numerous challenges in the courts. Westboro Baptist Church has won a few free-speech lawsuits against several cities and states. During WBC protests, members have been convicted of trespassing, disorderly conduct, failure to obey police and contributing to the delinquency of a minor. To this point, the Supreme Court has allowed lower court rulings to stand.

Albert Snyder’s lawsuit against Westboro Baptist Church

The church was sued in 2006 by Albert Snyder. He claims the church protest at his son’s military funeral doesn’t classify as free speech. The lawsuit alleges defamation and a violation of right to privacy. In its first hearing, the lawsuit was judged in Snyder’s favor, and he was awarded $ 8 million. When the ruling was appealed, the judge reduced the payment Snyder would get to $ 2.1 million – payday loans nevertheless couldn’t fund the WBC’s payment, though. Westboro had the ruling overturned on federal appeal, and Albert Snyder was required to pay the legal fees of the case. In March, the U.S. Supreme Court agreed to hear Albert Snyder’s case against Westboro.

Limitations on constitutional free speech

Basically, the Westboro Baptist Church lawsuit boils down to the question of protected free speech. ”Obscene utterances” and “certain personal slurs” cannot be protected by the First Amendment, as found in to Chaplinsky v. New Hampshire. Snyder’s family argues that WBC violated their right to religious freedom. The Supreme Court can have to decide which First Amendment right comes first.

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