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Profile: Derek Schmidt
Derek Schmidt was a participant or observer in the following events:
The US Supreme Court finds in favor of the vehemently anti-gay Westboro Baptist Church (WBC—see November 27, 1955 and After) in a court case brought by the father of a slain Marine whose funeral was disrupted by a WBC protest (see March 10, 2006 and After and October 2007). A court initially rendered an initial judgment of $5 million against the group for causing “excessive” pain and suffering to the family (see April 3, 2008), but an appeals court overturned that verdict (see March 2010). Snyder appealed to the Supreme Court, arguing that as a private citizen and not a public figure, he had an expectation of privacy that the WBC violated. “The [WBC protesters’] freedom of speech should have ended where it conflicted with Mr. Snyder’s freedom to participate in his son’s funeral, which was intended to be a solemn religious gathering,” Snyder’s lawyers argued before the Court. For their side, WBC lawyers, including church member Margie Phelps, argued that Snyder was indeed something of a public figure because he spoke to reporters after his son’s death and after the funeral, including giving quotes to reporters that excoriated the WBC. Additionally, the WBC denied interfering with or disrupting the funeral, and said that it was “well within the bounds of the law” when it picketed the funeral and used speech that was “hyperbolic, figurative, and hysterical.” The WBC pickets funerals, its lawyers argued, “to use an available public platform when the living contemplate death, to deliver the message that there is a consequence for sin.… It was about publicly-funded funerals of publicly-funded soldiers dying in an extremely public war because of very public policies of sin, including homosexuality, divorce, remarriage, and Roman Catholic priests molesting children.… The fact the speech was hyperbolic, figurative, and hysterical is why it should be protected. [It is] the essence of the kind of robust speech on critical public issues for which the First Amendment was written.” The Court rules 8-1 in favor of the WBC, saying that the group’s First Amendment rights protect it in debating public issues. Only Justice Samuel Alito dissents. The Court also notes that the WBC obeyed directions from local officials, kept a distance from the church where the Snyder funeral was held, and did not directly disrupt the funeral service. Writing for the majority, Chief Justice John Roberts finds: “Speech is powerful. It can stir people to action, move them to tears of both joy and sorrow, and—as it did here—inflict great pain. On the facts before us, we cannot react to that pain by punishing the speaker. As a nation we have chosen a different course—to protect even hurtful speech on public issues to ensure that we do not stifle public debate.” Many critics celebrate the reversal, saying that while the WBC’s actions were reprehensible, the original trial verdict, which found grounds for cause under the tort of intentional infliction of emotional distress, could be used to suppress freedom of expression in a number of other venues. [Topeka Capital-Journal, 10/2/2010; Topeka Capital-Journal, 3/2/2011; Anti-Defamation League, 2012; Southern Poverty Law Center, 2012] Opponents of the WBC say they are relieved that the ruling does not impact laws designed to protect grieving families from the church’s protests at funerals (see January 11, 2011). Kansas Attorney General Derek Schmidt criticizes the Court’s ruling, saying: “Today’s decision is a disappointment for Kansans who have endured for so long the embarrassment brought upon our state by the shameful conduct of the Westboro Baptist Church. Our hearts go out to the Snyder family whose pain and distress were at issue in this case.” [Topeka Capital-Journal, 3/2/2011] Doug Anstaett, executive director of the Kansas Press Association, says the ruling is more positive than negative: “Our highest court has reinforced the belief that our individual rights to free speech and assembly are so critical that we all must be willing to tolerate even that which the majority might find abhorrent.… It doesn’t say that what the Phelps family does or says is right. It simply says that in the United States, it is protected speech. When we start regulating speech, we’re headed down a very slippery slope. The Supreme Court is to be commended for refusing to take that route.” Snyder says the ruling shows that “eight justices don’t have the sense God gave a goat.” [Topeka Capital-Journal, 3/2/2011]
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