Sickening protests at the funerals of American soldiers are protected by America’s First Amendment right to free speech, the US Supreme Court has ruled.
America’s top court said the protesters could not be sued for displaying shocking slogans of “thank God for dead soldiers” and “God hates you” at a funeral of a marine.
The case centred on the funeral of Lance Cpl. Matthew Snyder, who died in Iraq in 2006. His funeral, held in Maryland, was picketed by protesters led by extremist Fred Phelps.
The protestors picket military funerals to publicise their bizarre messages of hate against Jews, Roman Catholics and homosexuals.
Grieving father Albert Snyder took legal action, seeking compensation for emotional distress caused by the protest.
But the Supreme Court ruled 8-1 against the father. The court said it must “protect even hurtful speech on public issues to ensure that we do not stifle public debate.”
The one dissenting judge, Justice Samuel Alito, wrote: “Our profound national commitment to free and open debate is not a license for the vicious verbal assault that occurred in this case.”
The Phelps group is a small fringe body calling itself the Westboro Baptist Church, but it has no affiliation with any national Baptist organisation.
It pickets military funerals, believing that dead soldiers are the result of God’s judgment on America.
The Christian Institute denounces the group’s actions. Director Colin Hart said: “Picketing a military funeral with messages of hate is a despicable thing to do, and no genuine Christian would support it.
“If this had happened in Britain, the Phelps group could have been arrested and prosecuted under public order laws, and rightly so.
“Yes, free speech is an important liberty that should not be interfered with lightly. But this type of behaviour goes well beyond acceptable protest.
“In Britain, free speech rights are not as strong as in America. We believe some police officers in this country have gone way over the top in arresting protesters. One demonstrator was arrested for describing scientology as a dangerous cult.
“We are seeking a change in the law to address this problem, but our proposed change would most certainly outlaw the type of vile abuse made infamous by the Phelps group.”