Protecting vile speech

The Westboro Baptist Church is a despicable and misguided outfit out of Kansas that has grabbed attention from time to time by aggressively protesting against gays.

The group's founder, Fred Phelps, claims God hates America because of its tolerance for homosexuality. As such, he sometimes takes his wacko show out on the road to attack the United States by protesting at the funerals of fallen soldiers.

A real class act.

Four years ago, members of this cult showed up at the Maryland funeral of Lance Corp. Matthew Snyder, who was killed in Iraq. The protesters -- kept at a distance from the church and burial service -- carried signs that read, "Fag troops," "God hates the USA" and "God hates fags."

Lance Corp. Snyder's father, Albert Snyder, sued. He claimed the protesters invaded his family's privacy and intentionally inflicted emotional distress. A jury awarded him nearly $11 million.

Last September, however, the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals tossed out the verdict on free speech grounds.

"Notwithstanding the distasteful and repugnant nature of the words being challenged in these proceedings, we are constrained to conclude that the defendants' signs are constitutionally protected," the justices held.

On Monday, the U.S. Supreme Court agreed to hear Mr. Snyder's appeal this fall. It may be unpleasant, but it shouldn't be a difficult case for the justices.

What Mr. Phelps and his band of clowns do is beyond the pale. How much longer can they expect to avoid physical confrontation?

But it is protected speech. It must be. If the First Amendment protects only what we find pleasant or agreeable, it ceases to exist. If the government may intervene simply because an idea or expression of such is upsetting or offensive to some, the Bill of Rights has been rendered a dead letter, and all Americans are far worse off for it.

Mr. Phelps deserves the derision and scorn of all thoughtful people. But he also deserves to win this case.