Of Vetoes, Free Speech and Funeral Picketing
One of the benefits of Gov. Jerry Brown’s self-penned veto messages is that they open small windows into his personality.
In one such missive, the Democratic governor expresses regret that he can’t sign a bill making it a misdemeanor to picket funerals within one hour before the funeral begins and one hour after it concludes.
The measure was a response to the now notorious Westboro Baptist Church of Topeka, Kansas. Founded by Fred Phelps and consisting mainly of his extended family, the church protests at funerals using fairly explicit signs to protest homosexuality, Catholicism and Judaism, among other things.
Westboro Baptist Church entered the national spotlight in 1998 when it picketed the funeral of Matthew Shepard, a Wyoming youth beaten to death because of his homosexuality.
Snyder’s father, Albert, sued for invasion of privacy and emotional distress.
A trial court awarded him $5 million but the judgment was reversed by an appellate court, which held that the church was protected under the First Amendment “notwithstanding the distasteful and repugnant nature of the words.”
The high court said the church’s actions were not unruly, occurred on public land more than 1,000 feet from the services and, in short, the protesters “had the right to be where they were.”
Writing or the majority, Chief Justice John Roberts concludes:
“Westboro believes that America is morally flawed; many Americans might feel the same about Westboro. Westboro’s funeral picketing is certainly hurtful and its contribution to public discourse may be negligible. But Westboro addressed matters of public import on public property, in a peaceful manner, in full compliance with the guidance of local officials.
“Speech is powerful. It can stir people to action, move them to tears of both joy and sorrow, and — as it did here — inflict great pain. On the facts before us, we cannot react to that pain by punishing the speaker. As a nation we have chosen a different course — to protect even hurtful speech on public issues to ensure that we do not stifle public debate.”
Justice Samuel Alito, one of the court’s most conservative members, was the lone dissenter. He notes that Matthew Snyder and his family are private citizens and that the church, rather than commenting on an issue of public concern, attacks the parents directly.
Alito quotes from an online church missive after the funeral:
“God blessed you, Mr. and Mrs. Snyder, with a resource and his name was Matthew. He was an arrow in your quiver! In thanks to God for the comfort the child could bring you, you had a DUTY to prepare that child to serve the LORD his GOD—PERIOD! You did JUST THE OPPOSITE—you raised him for the devil.
“Albert and Julie (Snyder) RIPPED that body apart and taught Matthew to defy his Creator, to divorce, and to commit adultery. They taught him how to support the largest pedophile machine in the history of the entire world, the Roman Catholic monstrosity. Every dime they gave the Roman Catholic monster they condemned their own souls. They also, in supporting satanic Catholicism, taught Matthew to be an idolater.
“Then after all that they sent him to fight for the United States of Sodom, a filthy country that is in lock step with his evil, wicked and sinful manner of life, putting him in the cross hairs of a God that is so mad He has smoke coming from his nostrils and fire from his mouth! How dumb was that?”
“It is abundantly clear that respondents, going far beyond commentary on matters of public concern, specifically attacked Matthew Snyder because (1) he was a Catholic and (2) he was a member of the United States military.
“Our profound national commitment to free and open debate is not a license for the vicious verbal assault that occurred in this case.
“In order to have a society in which public issues can be openly and vigorously debated, it is not necessary to allow the brutalization of innocent victims like petitioner,” he wrote.
The bill Brown vetoed — SB 888 by Sen. Ted Lieu, a Torrance Demorat — attempted to ban such funeral protests but do so without violating the high court’s edict.
“This measure seeks to address the offensive conduct of those who protest at private funerals to gain publicity for their causes and I am very tempted to sign it,” Brown wrote.
“When I was the Attorney General, I joined an amicus brief in the Supreme Court arguing that funeral protesters should be held accountable to their victims. But earlier this year, the Supreme Court ruled that funeral protests are protected by the First Amendment and can be circumscribed in only extremely limited ways.
“I cannot in good faith sign this measure because it plainly fails to comport with the Supreme Court’s decision.”
The church, which publishes its protest schedule, claims it will picket the funeral of Steve Jobs, Apple’s co-founder.
A Twitter message by Margie Phelps, the church founder’s daughter, said Jobs didn’t use his position to sufficiently glorify God.
She used an iPhone to tweet.
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