Reporting from Washington — The Supreme Court agreed Monday to decide the outer limits of free-speech protection for protests and to rule on whether a dead soldier's family can sue fringe religious protesters who picketed near their son's funeral carrying signs that read, "Thank God for dead soldiers."
FOR THE RECORD:
Jet Propulsion Lab: An article in Tuesday's Section A about cases the Supreme Court plans to decide said the Jet Propulsion Laboratory is in Pasadena. It is in La Canada Flintridge. —
Like the famous case of the American Nazis who marched in Skokie, Ill., the new case of anti-gay picketing at military funerals tests whether the most hateful protests must be tolerated under the 1st Amendment, even if they inflict emotional harm.
In this instance, the victims were the family of Marine Lance Cpl. Matthew A. Snyder, who was killed in combat in Iraq on March 3, 2006.
When his family announced his funeral would be held in Westminster, Md., a Kansas preacher decided to travel there with a few followers to protest. In recent years, Fred Phelps, founder of the Westboro Baptist Church, has been protesting at military funerals around the nation because he believes the United States is too tolerant of homosexuality.
Though kept distant from St. John Roman Catholic Church and the cemetery, Phelps and his followers carried signs that read "God Hates the USA," "Fag troops" and "Pope in hell."
There was no suggestion that Snyder was gay or that the protests even involved him directly. But after returning to Kansas, Phelps said on his website that Albert Snyder, the soldier's father, had "taught Matthew to defy his creator" and "raised him for the devil."
Albert Snyder sued Phelps for invading his privacy and for an intentional infliction of emotional distress. A Maryland jury rejected Phelps' defense based on free speech and awarded Snyder $10.9 million in damages.
A judge reduced the amount to $5 million.
Last September, the U.S. 4th Circuit Court of Appeals threw out the verdict, citing the 1st Amendment. The protest signs were "distasteful and repugnant," but their words were wild and hyperbolic, the judges said. They did not "assert actual facts about either Snyder or his son," the court said.
The father appealed to the Supreme Court, noting that a family at a funeral is a "captive audience" and cannot simply turn away from a hateful protest. "Snyder had one [and only one] opportunity to bury his son and that occasion has been tarnished forever," his lawyer said. "Matthew deserved better. A civilized society deserved better."
The high court said it had voted to hear the case of Snyder vs. Phelps in the fall and to consider reinstating the jury verdict.
It was one of two privacy cases the court voted to take up. The second involves scientists and engineers at the Jet Propulsion Lab in California. They raised privacy objections when they were told to answer personal questions about drug use as part of a background check.
NASA owns the lab in Pasadena, and in 2007 it extended the background checks for federal employees to all of its contract workers, including those at JPL. A group of 28 lab employees sued, and they won an exemption from the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals.
The Obama administration appealed, saying this privacy ruling cast a doubt on the legality of all federal background checks. The court said it will hear the case of NASA vs. Nelson in the fall.