Office of the Attorney General
1 June 2010
Saying that "disrupting a private funeral with vicious personal attacks goes too far," California Attorney General Edmund G. Brown Jr. has signed a friend-of-the-court brief filed today in a Supreme Court case that will test whether families grieving at a funeral have a right to be free of hate-filled attacks from fanatical protesters.
Brown is one of 48 state attorneys general who gave their support to Albert Snyder in his lawsuit against Fred W. Phelps, Sr. and the Westboro Baptist Church in Topeka, Kansas.
Near the 2006 Maryland funeral of Snyder's son, Marine Lance Cpl. Matthew Snyder, the vehemently anti-gay Phelps and his parishioners demonstrated and waved signs that said "Thank God for Dead Soldiers" and some that employed even more offensive language. Matthew Snyder, 20, was killed in a Humvee accident a month after he arrived in Iraq.
"Free speech is a cherished American right," Brown said, "but disrupting a private funeral with vicious personal attacks on the grieving family goes too far."
Phelps believes that U.S. military deaths represent God's judgment on the country's tolerance of homosexuality. He and his church members have staged their hate-filled protests at some 200 military funerals across the country.
Albert Snyder filed a civil suit against Phelps for invading his family's privacy and intentionally inflicting emotional distress on them. A U.S. district court awarded Snyder $10 million, but a federal appeals court overturned that verdict and ordered Snyder to pay Phelps' legal costs.
Forty states have enacted "funeral picketing" or "funeral protest" laws regulating the time, place and conduct of demonstrations near funeral services.
The amicus brief, submitted by Kansas Attorney General Steve Six, argues that such laws are necessary to protect the traditional "sanctity and privacy" of funerals and to prevent mourning families of veterans from being "attacked viciously and personally." The picketing, the brief says, "amounts to emotional terrorism" directed at a "captive audience."
Freedom of speech does not permit hate groups to espouse hate-filled vitriol at a private funeral service for the purpose of intentionally inflicting emotional distress on mourners.
"All we wanted," Albert Snyder told a reporter, "was a private funeral for my son. They turned it into a three-ring circus."