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Published: Tuesday, 3/16/2010

Guard repugnant speech

THE First Amendment's free speech clause protects even the most vile speech. Citizens have a right to spew hateful, offensive discourse from their soapboxes. No challenge to that constitutional protection can be upheld.

Not even if it involves despicable religious protesters picketing near a soldier's funeral in a twisted effort to revile homosexuals. It's unfortunate that the antics of a small church sect, bent on hurling invective at military funerals around the nation, have become a test case for freedom of speech to be decided by the Supreme Court.

There is nothing heroic about the pain a Kansas preacher and members of his Westboro Baptist Church cause grieving families burying soldiers. But when the father of a fallen Marine, whose funeral was picketed by Fred Phelps and others, sued the pastor for invading his privacy and intentionally inflicting emotional distress, the stage was set for a constitutional confrontation.

Our sympathies rest with Albert Snyder, who was incensed that the opportunity to bury his son - Iraq war casualty Marine Lance Cpl. Matthew Snyder - was tarnished by the Westboro group.

Initially, a Maryland jury awarded Mr. Snyder $10.9 million in damages, later reduced to $5 million by a judge, but a federal appeals court threw out the judgment.

It acknowledged that the protest by Mr. Phelps and his followers was distasteful and repugnant, but "intended to spark debate about issues" rather than "assert actual facts about either Snyder or his son." The group, bearing such signs as "Fag troops" and "Thank God for Dead Soldiers," also complied with local ordinances and kept its distance from the church and cemetery.

Like the famous case of American Nazis marching in Skokie, Ill., the anti-gay picketing at military funerals tests whether even the most reprehensible protests causing emotional harm should be tolerated under the First Amendment.

They should, if truly free speech is to endure.

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