This column presents facts regarding the United States Constitution, the Declaration of Independence, the Wisconsin State Constitution, and various other documents in reference to modern topics. Mark hopes to encourage interest in those works so that others can consider whether our government is practicing within its constitutional limits. In the last category, he may indicate his opinion. Mark is a resident of New Berlin. Readers are encouraged to visit the following sites for more information on the United States Constitution and Thomas Jefferson's views on politics and government.
According to USA TODAY, October 6, 2010 (full article available on-line)
WASHINGTON — Supreme Court justices expressed empathy Wednesday for a father whose Marine Corps son was killed in Iraq and whose funeral was protested by fundamentalist pastor Fred Phelps and his anti-gay followers.
"This is a case about exploiting a private family's grief," Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg said.
Yet the scope of the justices' questions during the hour-long session revealed the difficulty of the case and the reality that the court's previous rulings on free speech make it hard for individuals to claim they have been harmed by even horrific statements regarding public issues.
Wednesday's case arose after Matthew Snyder, a Marine Corps lance corporal, was killed in Iraq in 2006. Fred Phelps and members of the Westboro Baptist Church — who comb media reports nationwide for news of military funerals — saw that Matthew would be memorialized in Westminster, Md. They protested near the Catholic church with signs that read, "Thank God for Dead Soldiers," "Fag Troops" and "Pope in Hell."
The Westboro congregation is made up mainly of Phelps' relatives. They preach that God hates gay people and protest what they say is a national tolerance for homosexuality, particularly under the military's "don't ask, don't tell" policy. (Snyder was not gay.)
Snyder sued for damages based on the emotional distress Phelps and his followers caused him and won $5 million in a jury verdict. The trial judge said Snyder was not a "public figure," which diminished the free speech protections for Phelps and his followers.
The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit reversed the verdict, saying the question was not the private or public status of Snyder but rather the "type" of speech at issue.
Justice Kennedy said he wanted help "in finding some line" between speech that merits protection and speech that does not.
Groups backing Snyder, including the Veterans of Foreign Wars and 48 states, stressed the need to protect the privacy of grieving military families. Free speech groups, such as the American Civil Liberties Union, say Phelps' horrific message is exactly the kind of unpopular, offensive speech the First Amendment was intended to protect.
A ruling in the case of Snyder v. Phelps is likely before next summer when the court recesses.
Federal vs. State Authority over speech
The US Constitution; First Amendment
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.
Missouri State Constitution; Article I, Section 8
That no law shall be passed impairing the freedom of speech, no matter by what means communicated: that every person shall be free to say, write or publish, or otherwise communicate whatever he will on any subject, being responsible for all abuses of that liberty; and that in all suits and prosecutions for libel or slander the truth thereof may be given in evidence; and in suits and prosecutions for libel the jury, under the direction of the court, shall determine the law and the facts.
We the People:
This should not be about the federal government finding some line, or it determining who is a public figure. This is about governmental jurisdiction. The Missouri constitution clearly includes a qualifier for its legislature to define abuses of speech. However the US Constitution prohibits such from Congress. Therefore the prerogative is for each state’s Supreme Court to interpret “abuse” and for the people therein to define abuse in their state constitutions via their state legislators.