Freedom of speech was put to test again last week; courtesy of our friends over at Westboro Baptist Church and their typical, classless routine:
Anti-gay protesters who picket the funerals of U.S. soldiers are protected from lawsuits by the right of free speech even though their message might be deeply offensive, the Supreme Court ruled Wednesday.
Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. said the 1st Amendment shields speech and protests on “matters of public import on public property [conducted] in a peaceful manner and in full compliance with local officials.”
By an 8-1 vote, the justices threw out a lawsuit against Fred Phelps and the Westboro Baptist Church from Topeka, Kan. Phelps has gained national attention — and stirred deep anger — for using solemn military funerals to spread an anti-gay and anti-military message. He was sued by Albert Snyder, a Maryland father whose son died in Iraq. Phelps and his family picketed at Matthew Snyder’s funeral carrying signs that read, “Thank God for Dead Soldiers” and “God Hates Fags.”
A jury awarded the father $11 million in damages on the grounds that he suffered emotional distress, but the Supreme Court said that verdict could not stand.
The case of Snyder vs. Phelps became a major test of the limits of free speech. Lawyers for the Snyder family said the lawsuit should be upheld on the grounds that the picketing was a targeted assault on a private memorial service, not a truly public event involving public issues.
But Roberts and the high court rejected that contention, concluding that the protests took place on public streets and involved comment on public matters such as war and morality. As he said, the Westboro church believes the United States is “overly tolerant of sin and that God kills American soldiers as punishment.”
“Westboro believes that America is morally flawed; many Americans might feel the same about Westboro,” he wrote. Its funeral picketing “is certainly hurtful and its contribution to public discourse may be negligible.”
But, Roberts wrote, “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. That choice requires that we shield Westboro from tort liability for its picketing in this case.”
The decision does not appear to affect many laws that sought to keep the Westboro protesters at a distance from a family and the funeral service. In the past, the court has said that officials can regulate where marches and protests take place, so long as they do not ban them entirely.
Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. dissented alone. He said Snyder was “not a public figure,” yet he was subjected to “a malevolent personal attack” at a time of deep pain and anguish. “Our profound national commitment to free and open debate is not a license for the vicious verbal assault that occurred in this case,” he wrote.
The congregation at the Westboro Baptist Church (making me decidedly embarassed to be a Christian, but also eternally thankful that I’m nowhere near as ignorant, short-sighted, and evil) are truly the scum of the Earth for protesting funerals; especially those of people serving our country. But – until the Constitution is amended to preclude certain types of speech – they are protected scum. The SCOTUS made the right call here. If citizens want to light a fire under Westboro in response, they’re certainly free to. In fact, I’m hoping more people will. But as a matter of legality, Westboro has just as much of a right to proclaim their message of hate and intolerance as any of us. Westboro has tons more up their sleeves, I have no doubt. But the moment we attempt to surpress speech just because we don’t agree with it, we almost stoop to the level of the “Rev.” Phelpses of the world.
I’m sorry to say, folks: free speech ain’t always pretty.