Thursday, June 3, 2010

Past Solutions to Present Problems: Snyder v. Phelps

The Supreme Court will rule on Snyder v. Phelps, the case involving whether or not horrible human beings have the right to picket other people's funerals. The facts of the case are about as deplorable as it gets: Fred Phelps and the rabble he has inspired pickets the funerals of war dead in an attempt to convince the public that god is punishing the nation for tolerating homosexuality. Matthew Snyder was killed in Iraq and his father is suing Phelps for damages for picketing his son's funeral.

This is the kind of case that makes me glad I didn't go to law school because everyone would have hated me. I'm really nervous that Snyder is such a compelling plaintiff and Phelps is such an incredible monster that the First Amendment implications of the case may go by the wayside. Professor Christina Wells at the Mizzou Law School has some interesting stuff to say on this point, so I'll leave you to read her here.

While I'm not a First Amendment attorney, I am a historian (d'oh!). As such, this case is fascinating because seventy or so years ago and earlier, something like this wouldn't have ended up in front of a court. Some group of vigilantes would have simply beat the everliving snot out of Phelps and his fellows, or perhaps just have thrown them into some cars and driven them off into the hinterland. The local constable would look the other way, or maybe arrest Phelps afterward for some permit violation. And that would be that. While it's certainly some sign of progress that Americans now litigate these kinds of grievances rather than get all punchy (and this blog never endorses violence) I can't help but feel a bit wistful for the simplicity of the earlier solution in just this one instance. 

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