It is easy to see the US Supreme Court decision in Snyder v. Phelps as a victory for the hate-mongering Westboro Baptist Church. That is the obvious story with an 8-1 decision. Most people won't think about it beyond the initial news coverage.
The justices awarded a "win" to Phelps inside the court, but Al Snyder beats Westboro Baptist Church hands-down in the equally important court of public opinion. No one will embrace the Phelps' message of hate because of this ruling, the justices unanimously agreed their speech is vile. But many millions of Americans have re-examined their hearts and beliefs because Al Snyder had the courage of his convictions to stand up to the Phelps. Al Snyder's efforts make America a better place because more people are exercising their free speech to counter the Phelps hate.
The law says free speech trumps all, and apparently leaves no remedy for private citizens, distinguished from public figures, who are harmed by speech that crosses the line into harassment. In his dissent, Justice Alito hit exactly the right tone, "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." Alito articulates an ability to protect private citizens from harm, noting the targeted nature of the Phelps' attacks against Snyder in press releases, pickets and an online diatribe after Matthew Snyder's funeral. In each instance, the Phelps personally attacked an honorable family who gave the ultimate sacrifice to their country.
The Phelps will continue to picket funerals, taunting mourners and disrupting one of the most sacred rites every family, of every belief, experiences. They will not be bankrupted by the $5 million tort judgment for the intentional infliction of emotional distress that a jury of their peers awarded Mr. Snyder in the lower court.
But because of Al Snyder's courage and grace, seeing this case through to the US Supreme Court five years after his son's funeral, more Americans are now aware of exactly what hate looks like: furrowed brow, aged beyond years, narrow beady eyes, pinched faces and foaming spittle in the corners of angry mouths. Hate is rabid. Americans know what hate sounds like: pitched tones screaming absolutes rather than genuinely listening to the heart of another. Hate knows no compassion. Because of Al Snyder's dignity, Americans now know what hate feels like: abusive and intrusive, both emotionally and psychologically -- just as the Phelps children experienced at the hands of their father growing up, as has been documented.
Far from winning converts, the country is turning away from the Phelps' hate. Counter-protests are now more common than they were when Snyder filed his case. Wherever the Phelps go the counter-protests are usually much larger than the half-dozen or so Phelps family members picketing. Online efforts like Phelps-a-thon.com and others raise money for anti-bullying and pro-LGBT organizations whenever and wherever the Phelps picket, giving people all over the country an opportunity to counter hate with love. Another opportunity to push back against the Phelps, as Al Snyder is now faced with the ultimate insult added to his injury, having to pay the court costs of the Phelps, is to contribute here as a way of thanking him for exposing the Phelps as the small-minded bigots they are.
No doubt, there is celebrating in the isolated Phelps family compound in my hometown of Topeka, Kansas. To them, their hate has been vindicated. This family of several reprimanded and disbarred lawyers, with a long history of abusing the legal system, triumphed in the highest court in the land. They believe they are famous, but infamous seems more accurate.
The Snyders in Westminster, Maryland, are obviously disappointed, but not for the loss of the millions of dollars awarded by the lower court. Mr. Snyder's sorrow is for the families all across America who now will experience what he did -- the taunting, invasion of privacy, and intrusion into one of life's most sacred moments.
Al Snyder wasn't the least bit concerned about the money except for the fact it might have deprived Westboro Baptist Church from ever disrupting another family's mourning. The legal remedy he sought was not for private gain, but public good. While the court's decision strongly affirms free speech, and that is certainly in the public good, Snyder's concern was that the court's decision gives all rights to those who threaten civility by targeting private citizens with hate, turning funerals into spectacles. It seems the law reserves no rights to Americans who, like him and his family, simply want to bury a loved one and grieve privately.
Legal scholars and others will agree or disagree on the fine points of the law, but in the battle for hearts and minds, Al Snyder won the day he took a stand, and millions of Americans stand with him today while the Phelps grow ever more isolated. That's progress.
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