Westboro protest ruling has military families, advocates feeling betrayed

McClatchy NewspapersMarch 2, 2011 

WASHINGTON — Veterans found it hard Wednesday to square the Supreme Court's ruling in Snyder v. Phelps with the constitutional right that they swore — and for which many have given their lives — to protect.

The court's ruling that the controversial Westboro Baptist Church of Topeka, Kan., was exercising its right to free speech when it conducted protests at military funerals left many feeling betrayed.

"We fought for the right to freedom of speech, but we need to strike a balance between protecting free speech and protecting grieving families," said Paul Rieckhoff, executive director of the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, a support group.

Military families and their advocates were disheartened.

"It is a sad moment for families of America's fallen military," said Ami Neiberger-Miller, a spokeswoman for TAPS, the Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors, an emotional support group for military families.

The church picketed her brother's funeral in Florida in 2007. He was a 22-year-old Army specialist killed while serving in Iraq.

"Many of our families have been brutalized by this group, often only days after they found their love ones have died," Neiberger-Miller said.

First Amendment scholars, meanwhile, offered a weary but knowing shrug.

Far from being a landmark legal decision, they said, the high court ruling was pretty conventional and not unexpected.

"What people have to realize is, the time we need free speech is when the speech is really unpleasant," said Susan Low Bloch, who teaches constitutional law at the Georgetown University Law Center. "You often have to hold your nose and say, this is what we have to put up with to make sure we have the space to have a discussion. It's going to involve protecting some really ugly speech."

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