Commentary: Phelps' military funeral protests need Supreme Court ruling

It's easy to defend most free speech against government restriction. It's difficult to defend the appalling signs and sidewalk ravings of Fred Phelps' flock at military funerals, which is why it will be fascinating and instructive to see what the U.S. Supreme Court does with a Phelps case next fall.

The Phelps clan at Topeka's Westboro Baptist Church, long a statewide shame, began picketing military funerals across the country in 2005 to promote its bizarre belief that the U.S. deaths in Iraq and Afghanistan are God's punishment for society's tolerance of homosexuality. Its version of speech — with signs declaring "Thank God for dead soldiers" and worse — has sent lawmakers in 40 states including Kansas scrambling to pass "time, place and manner" restrictions on such funeral protests.

The high court decided Monday to consider the appeal of Albert Snyder, who won a $5 million verdict in a federal court in Maryland against the Phelps clan for emotional distress and invasion of privacy over its picketing at the March 2006 funeral of his son, Marine Lance Cpl. Matthew Snyder, and its Web site comments.

Satisfying as the verdict was for Kansans tired of being associated with the Phelps demonstrations, it always faced long odds on appeal. And sure enough, the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals threw it out, finding the Phelpses' rhetoric to be "utterly distasteful" yet constitutionally protected.

According to the respected SCOTUSblog, the issue in Snyder v. Phelps is "the degree of constitutional protection given to private remarks made about a private person, occurring in a largely private setting."