American citizens are granted freedom of speech and religion by the Constitution's First Amendment. Sometimes the expression of those rights generates controversy.
Members of Topeka's Westboro Baptist Church have long picketed public events as a means of spreading their anti-homosexual message. Perhaps the most controversial forum for the picketers have been military funerals, where they often carry signs reading, "Thank God for dead soldiers," "God Hates the USA," and "Thank God for 9/11."
Lance Corporal Matthew Snyder of the U.S. Marine Corps was killed in Iraq in 2006. His funeral in Maryland was picketed by Westboro church members who espoused the belief that God kills soldiers as punishment for the nation's sinful policies. Snyder's father, Albert, indicated he only wanted to bury his son in peace, and later brought suit against the church for intentionally inflicting emotional distress.
Although Snyder initially won damages against the Westboro Baptist Church, the verdict was overturned by a federal appeals court. The case next was heard by the United States Supreme Court which ruled in favor of the church on March 2, 2011. Justice Stephen Breyer said that it would be wrong to punish Westboro "for seeking to communicate its views on matters of public concern." Chief Justice John Roberts gave the opinion that it was necessary to protect "even hurtful speech on public issues to ensure we do not stifle public debate."
Obviously, reactions from both parties to the case differed dramatically. Church member Margie Phelps said, "We read the law. We follow the law. The only way for a different ruling is to shred the First Amendment." Plaintiff Albert Snyder stated, "We found out today we can no long bury our dead in this country with dignity." Many people agreed with Snyder, including the National Commander of the Veterans of Foreign Wars who claimed, "The right to free speech does not trump a family's right to mourn in private."
Editorial cartoonists from newspapers around the country also expressed opinions about the case. Jim Morin of the Miami Herald drew this cartoon depicting Lady Justice. The allegorical figure grasps a skunk representing the Westboro Baptist Church, and the clothespin on her nose is an attempt to stifle the unpleasant smell. The thought bubble above Justice's head reads, "What I won't do to protect freedom of speech."
Jim Morin donated the original artwork for his cartoon to the Kansas Museum of History. The published version (top) includes an earlier draft (bottom) on the back.
Entry: Editorial Cartoon
Author: Kansas Historical Society
Author information: The Kansas Historical Society is a state agency charged with actively safeguarding and sharing the state's history.
Date Created: January 2012
Date Modified: December 2014
The author of this article is solely responsible for its content.