June 2, 2010

Maine AG cites free speech concerns in court case

By staff and wire reports

Maine Attorney General Janet Mills said today that free speech concerns prompted the state’s decision not to join a widely supported court filing on behalf of a father whose son’s military funeral attracted anti-gay protestors.

Forty-eight states and the District of Columbia joined in a friend-of-the court brief Tuesday in support of Albert Snyder, who filed suit against Westboro Baptist Church and its leader, Fred Phelps.

Maine, along with Virginia, declined to participate in the case.

Mills said in a statement that the actions Phelps and his followers were “offensive and outrageous, but the First Amendment does not allow us to distinguish between polite speech and hateful or outrageous speech.”

She said the issue was not political, but a matter of not “carving out exceptions to the First Amendment for speech that is unpopular or offensive.”

A jury in Baltimore awarded Snyder $5 million in damages after Westboro protesters picketed his son’s funeral in Westminster, Md. Phelps and his followers have picketed military funerals across the country because they believe war deaths are punishment for U.S. tolerance of homosexuality.

At the 2006 funeral of Marine Lance Cpl. Matthew Snyder, protesters from the Kansas-based church carried signs with messages like “Thank God for dead soldiers” and “God Hates the USA/Thank God for 9/11.”

A three-judge panel of the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond ruled that the signs contained “imaginative and hyperbolic rhetoric” protected by the First Amendment and threw out the verdict. Snyder appealed that decision to the Supreme Court, which is expected to hear the case this fall.

Mills pointed out that lower courts have recognized the right of states to regulate the place, time and manner of protests and said that Maine two years ago passed a law forbidding “activities that disturb the peace of funeral attendees.”

However, she said protests orchestrated by Phelps would not have violated that law because the demonstration was held in a public area at a distance from the church, the protesters were under police supervision and they did not confront those attending the funeral or disrupt the service.

Virginia’s attorney general also raised First Amendment concerns in his decision not to support the Snyder complaint.

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