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Free speech: Westboro church Supreme Court case tests First Amendment

A Supreme Court case challenging the Westboro Baptist Church anti-gay protests will test the limits of free speech, with First Amendment implications for other forms of expression such as Quran burning and racist demonstrations.

By / Staff Writer / October 2, 2010

Megan Phelps-Roper, a member of the Westboro Baptist Church, picketed the 2007 funeral of Army Pfc. Cory F. Hiltz in Pasadena, Calif. A Supreme Court case challenging the church's anti-gay protests will test the limits of free speech, with First Amendment implications for other forms of expression such as Quran burning and racist demonstrations.

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When a Florida preacher announced his plan to burn copies of the holy Quran at his small Gainesville church, he hoped the symbolic act of desecration would create more than just a pile of ashes. His aim was no less than to spark a conflagration between two of the world's great religions – Christianity and Islam.

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The Rev. Terry Jones had important allies in his fiery gambit; free speech protections enshrined in the First Amendment, an ability to exploit the Internet, and a voracious 24-hour cable news cycle willing and able to send a hateful message around the globe in a single, shocking instant.

The strange tale of Mr. Jones and his fistful of matches cuts to the heart of the American ideal of free speech – that toler­ating expression of even the most ugly and hurtful ideas is a protection in a democratic country.

But has it gone too far?

When a US-based preacher can trigger deadly protests in Afghanistan and Kashmir, or an aborted Quran-burning in Florida prompts copycat burnings across the country, or a Seattle-based artist must go into hiding after drawing a cartoon of the prophet Muhammad, the limits of America's brand of free speech are bound to be tested – sometimes in surprising and dangerous ways.

On Oct. 6, the US Supreme Court takes up a case examining whether members of the Westboro Baptist Church of Topeka, Kan., went too far when they staged a protest at a fallen marine's funeral in Maryland. The demonstrators hoisted signs proclaiming: "You Are Going to Hell" and "Thank God for Dead Soldiers."

Fred Phelps, pastor of the Westboro church, has made a career out of using blunt and offensive statements to try to shock Americans into joining his crusade against gay rights. His followers show up at military funerals and announce that God is killing American soldiers for the sins of the country. Funeralgoers are urged to repent... or else.

In Maryland, it was too much for the grieving father, Albert Snyder, to endure. He sued. The case pits Mr. Snyder's First Amendment right to peacefully assemble in a church to mourn his son's passing against the Westboro protesters' right to chant harsh slogans and display shocking signs in their campaign for moral salvation of the nation.

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