Commentary: What's really at stake in Snyder v. Phelps

The Supreme Court is trying to decide, not for the first or the last time, where free speech crosses the line into harassment. But Snyder v. Phelps isn’t quite like any other free-speech case. This one has more emotional impact, and potentially more legal impact as well, than any other in recent memory.

This case involves the 2006 funeral of 20-year-old Marine Lance Cpl. Matthew Snyder, who died serving his country, and that Kansas roach motel of a “church” that claims U.S. war casualties are God’s punishment for society’s tolerance of homosexuality. The “Thank God for Dead Soldiers” and “God Hates Fags” bunch.

The First Amendment doesn’t protect just inoffensive forms of expression; indeed, if that were the case, what would be the point? Even the most vile, provocative and hateful sentiments enjoy constitutional protection, on the principle that a truly free society does not punish ideas.

Yet there’s another principle at work here as well — one the Constitution’s authors didn’t articulate quite this way, but that every American understands: The rights of your fist stop at the tip of my nose.

The court is expected to rule, sometime in the next nine months or so, where on the legal landscape the fist and the nose in this case are rightly to be found.

The First Amendment doesn’t give someone the right to call you repeatedly on the telephone and make terroristic threats, or to pound on your door for hours at a time, or to stand in a residential neighborhood in the middle of the night and blast out political screeds over a bullhorn. It isn’t an idea or opinion that is at issue in such cases, but the behavior of those delivering it.

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