Protesters at Military Funerals Test Free Speech

The Supreme Court takes up Wednesday a landmark case on the outer limits of free speech. The question is whether a church group has the right to protest at military funerals, even if many Americans find their message outrageous, and even hateful.

Ever since he was little Matthew Snyder wanted to be a Marine. His father, Al Snyder, says, "He had a drive to help people I think."

In January 2006, Matthew was deployed to Iraq. Just five weeks later, his father's doorbell rang.

"It was two Marines, and before I even opened the door I knew what they were there for," says Al.

Matthew Snyder was dead.

(Scroll down to watch the video.)

The reverend Fred Phelps and his Westboro Baptist Church took notice.

Phelps and his followers believe God punishes America for tolerating homosexuals, reports CBS News Chief Legal correspondent Jan Crawford. They repeatedly picket soldiers' funerals carrying signs like "Thank God for Dead Soldiers."

The group was on a public sidewalk in front of the Snyders' church when he and his family arrived. But once inside, Snyder still could not get them out of his mind.

"The worst thing that I fight now is the anger with the Phelps' for taking away that last moment that Matt was here on the earth," says Al.

After the funeral, the church took its campaign to its website.

"They went on the Internet and put on the Internet that my ex-wife and I had raised Matt for the devil," he says.

Snyder had enough. He sued and eventually won $5 million in damages. An appeals court threw out the verdict against the Phelps'.

When asked by CBS News what gives her the right to protest in front of someone's funeral, Shirley Phelps-Roper from the Westboro Baptist Church says, "Do you understand what a public right of way is? What gives you the right to cover that funeral? What gives you the right to run a news story about it? I'll tell you. Pick me. The first stinking amendment."

For Al Snyder, the case is about Matthew.

"Somebody said to me, '$5 million'." I bet you'd give it up to have Matt back. I would give it up just to say goodbye," says Al.

The Phelps' have protested at hundreds of military funerals. Again, they're not targeting gay soldiers. They're targeting all soldiers. They'll be at the Supreme Court Wednesday protesting again what they say is God's retribution for America's tolerance of homosexuals.

The American Civil Liberties Union and a number of First Amendment scholars say that the principle is simple. They say the government can't ban offensive or even hateful speech because they don't like it. How you draw that line is a very slippery slope.

Protesting at Military Funerals
  • Jan Crawford On Twitter» On Facebook»

    Jan Crawford is CBS News Chief Political and Legal Correspondent. She is from "Crossroads," Alabama.