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Who wins in free speech versus privacy?

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By Larry Rowell

The United States Supreme Court will soon listen to arguments that will test the very fabric and mettle of the First Amendment’s right of freedom of speech.

The case stems from members of the Topeka, Kan. Westboro Baptist Church’s constitutional right to picket at military funerals.

On March 10, 2006, seven members of the Phelps family picketed at 20-year-old Lance Cpl. Matthew Snyder’s funeral in northern Maryland.

More than 1,000 people showed up to support Snyder’s family and to protest against the Phelps’ message. 

The church members carried signs that proclaimed “Thank God for Dead Soldiers,” and “God Killed Your Sons.” 

The pastor of the church, the Rev. Fred Phelps, contends that the nation’s tolerance of homosexuality has drawn God’s condemnation.

While Phelps contends that his right to freely proclaim his vile and repugnant message at military funerals is universally protected by the First Amendment, families of soldiers who died contend that their constitutional right to privacy is being violated by Phelps.

The 14th Amendment is often cited as the amendment which protects what Justice Louis Brandeis termed the “right to be left alone.”

But upon reading it, it appears that a fair amount of interpretation has to be allowed to come to the conclusion that it protects someone’s privacy.

At this crossroads, then, the chief lawmakers in our nation will have to decide which rights are more important — the right to proclaim a message of hate at a military funeral or the right to privately grieve at that military funeral for a son or daughter who honorably served his or her country.

I am of the opinion that a dead soldier’s family, friends and loved ones — at the height of grief during a funeral — should not have to deal with the likes of the Phelps family.

What it boils down to is plain old DISRESPECT, and throw in a lack of common decency to honor a fallen soldier who served his country in the Armed Forces.

Unfortunately, however, the First Amendment doesn’t deal with decency and respect but with the right to freely express a message, no matter how indecent it is.

The justices will need the wisdom of Solomon to correctly rule on this issue.

But there is one thing that I do know — an almighty Judge will one day pronounce a verdict on the message of hate espoused by the Phelpses.

And that will be a verdict that neither Phelps nor his disciples will be able to appeal.

“By this all men will know that you are My disciples, if you have love one for another,” Jesus said in John 13:35.

Editor’s note: Larry Rowell is a staff writer for The Casey County News in Liberty.