Does the First Amendment Have Fred Phelps’ Back?

| 10/6/2010 12:01:48 PM

Tags: Fred Phelps, Westboro Baptist Church, Albert Snyder, Matthew Snyder, Supreme Court, free speech, First Amendment, politics, Brad Zellar,

First Amendment 

Today (October 6), in one of the most closely watched First Amendment showdowns in recent memory, the United States Supreme Court will finally hear arguments on the case of Albert Snyder vs. the Westboro Baptist Church.  

The WBC is, of course, the Kansas church presided over by the notorious Fred Phelps, whose God Hates Fags crusade has garnered scads of international publicity and outcry. There doesn’t appear to be a whole lot of logic—Biblical or otherwise—behind the views or actions of Phelps and his cronies, but one of their most peculiar and inexplicable publicity stunts has been showing up at the funerals of slain soldiers and brandishing signs with such slogans as “Semper Fi Fags.” 

In 2007, Albert Snyder, the father of one such soldier, successfully sued Phelps and his church for infliction of emotional duress. The Maryland jury award of $11 million was eventually carved in half by a judge, and the verdict was later overturned on appeal. 

Scott Swenson at The Huffington Post has a nice piece that provides a bit of historical perspective on Snyder v. Phelps and its odyssey through the court system and potential ramifications. 

As odious as you might find Phelps and his brethren, the case presents a thorny constitutional challenge. What do you think? Is the First Amendment so sacrosanct and pliable that even the Westboro Baptist Church should be able to use it for shelter? 

10/8/2010 2:01:31 PM


10/8/2010 10:49:19 AM

My apologies. Wasn't he in Children of the Wheat? You still have to admit it's damn flat out there. I was on my twelve millionth plane ride out of Dallas heading for Nebraska, sitting next to me was a young lady who was just discharged from the Air Force and heading home. Making small talk I asked her where she was stationed. She replied Kansas and asked if I knew the motto on the license plate. I said no and she replied "The Flat State." Then she asked if I knew the Nebraskas motto. Nope I said. She said "The Other Flat State." Geography 101.

10/8/2010 10:16:53 AM

Over and over again Shirley talks about this Philips character. Who is Fred Phillips and why does she hate him so much. One time Bill Orielly repeatedly called our governor now the Secretary of Health and Human Services, Mr. Sebilius on numerous occasions. Shirley and Oreilly have a lot in common both are arrogant know it alls that in reality just speak jibberish.

10/8/2010 9:33:41 AM

Corn is Nebraska Occum:) Kansas is the wheat state but who needs agriculture and animal science etc. right?

10/8/2010 8:54:18 AM

Wait....isn't the Utne Reader Kansas based? Using the six degrees of seperation theory I think Kevin Bacon is somehow involved in all this. Was he in Children of the Corn?

10/8/2010 8:39:15 AM

Shirley's ignorance and pompous elitist attitude seems to have no ceiling. Every time she post it is something more foolish than before. She may have deduced from my post below that I am from Kansas so it is possible that her comments were directed at me which is fine. Again regurgitating ignorant rhetoric handed down to her by her athiest handlers. SHERYL I object to you referring to the Phelps as a fundamentalist (although it is kind of an objective term). I think it would be fair to call me a fundamentalist. Fred is plain wicked. THere is a vs. in the bible that describes Fred it is Mathew 7:22 (might start in 21)-23 By the way SHIRLEY the academic elitist from Manhattan does not think much of your post either. Which I am sure you have scene but have not tried to challenge. Probably a good idea for some one with your well you know.

10/7/2010 4:37:31 PM

Thanks Cheryl for staving off my feeling of paranoia. I have neighbors from Kansas. Very nice people. Well educated, go to church 4-5 times a week, have a son (admittedly gay) they love but warn he will be condemned and should convert. It's confusing but nonetheless Kansas is still flat. There must be something to that theory. Unless by convert they mean to Shintoism. Ah ha. I will have to do more research and get back to you.

sheryl a. mccoy
10/7/2010 3:51:16 PM

I was struck by this statement from the Huffington Post article to which this UTNE story refers. "Phelps and his family were largely unnoticed outside Kansas when they began picketing funerals of AIDS victims and other gay people." Why? In the 1990's various people supported Phelps' speech against AIDS victims,and that was wrong....morally wrong. His group was able to get a foothold with impunity. The "fundamentalist" people can't have it both ways, and now people are trying to stop Phelps and his lawyer family. We also have other groups in Kansas who are equally despised, but no one tries to stop them.

10/7/2010 1:32:23 PM

Kansas? Why Kansas? Born in Mississippi. Schooled in South Carolina, Canada, California and stopping in Kansas. I have often wondered the same about the pioneers. Crossing beautiful green rolling wooded properties with beautiful lakes and mountains and coming to hot flat dusty plains, looking around and saying "this is it... Nirvana!" Must be all that reading in the covered wagons distracted them from reality. By the way someone needs to tell Mr. Phelps that molesting children in parks makes you a child molester or a pedaphile not a homosexual.

shirley hodge
10/7/2010 12:37:55 PM

We must never let our freedoms as defined by the Constitution be compromised, just one foot in the proverbial door is all that is needed by those who would shut up people they disagree with to commence the erosion of our basic rights. As for Fred Philips, are we really willing to give up our protected freedoms because an irrational, insane, religious wacko wants to spout off and make a fool of himself. I do find myself wondering where the Kansas child protection agencies are and what they are doing about the poor children within Philips reach. It is proven fact that he is a child beater, why is he running around loose but then Kansas was the state that decided that their schools would teach creationism and not evolution so that is perhaps the answer. A state full of nut cases.

10/7/2010 11:27:35 AM

@rodeen: Fred Phelps has 13 children, 5 are male. One of the estranged sons is married; the other is divorced. The latter two have been public about their physical abusive childhoods at the hands of Fred, Sr. The information I have on one of the sons is second-hand, so I concede to add that disclaimer here. The film, Shades of Gray, directed by Tim DePaep, provides an excellent source of info on Phelps and his clan, as well as the terrible homophobia in Kansas and its surrounds.

joe price
10/7/2010 10:28:43 AM

The demonstrations by Phelps and crew are revolting. Hate speech directed publicly at private individuals should not be protected. See

10/7/2010 9:33:12 AM

Not that it is relevant one way or the other but I dont think that Fred has any openly gay sons. Both estranged sons are married. Now maybe you know something the rest of the world does not? Most of the Phelps have paying jobs and live in a compound and share all of there money so sueing is not the only way they make money infact not most of it. I too am familiar with the Phelps they picket my "Fag Church" one or two sundays a month.

10/7/2010 9:13:59 AM

Let's put the WBC in context: It is an extended family who makes money by suing over the right to freedom of speech. This is what they do, what they've always done, and they've made quite a tidy sum from it. They choose, therefore, the most egregious places to protest in hopes that someone will shut them down and they can then sue. Fred Phelps' son is gay; having been around Phelps I would wager that he is, too, though deeply closeted -- which is why, in self-loathing, he "hates fags." He and his ilk are neither religious nor obviously moral; they are capitalists.

gerald berke
10/7/2010 8:39:09 AM

why not at births, weddings, confirmations, sporting events, flower shows, special olympics? It isn't clear that private social gatherings should be fit for "free speech"... that would violate some notion of privacy, free from interference. What about freedom from speech? Freedom from religion? Is a woman's house her prison? Can she not venture forth? Isn't this a bit like cross burning?