Supreme Court: 'Hurtful Speech' of Westboro Baptist Church Is Protected

Article excerpt

Supreme Court Justice Alito is the lone dissenter in the 8-to-1 ruling on free-speech principles, saying the conduct of the Westboro Baptist Church 'caused petitioner great injury.'

In an important reaffirmation of free speech principles, the US Supreme Court on Wednesday ruled that noxious, highly offensive protests conducted outside solemn military funerals are protected by the First Amendment when the protests take place in public and address matters of public concern.

The high court ruled 8 to 1 that members of the Topeka, Kansas- based Westboro Baptist Church are entitled to stage their controversial antigay protests even when they cause substantial injury to family members and others attending the funeral of a loved one.

"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," Chief Justice John Roberts wrote in the majority opinion. "On the facts before us, we cannot react to that pain by punishing the speaker," he said.

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"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," the chief justice wrote.

In a lone dissent, Justice Samuel Alito said the nation's commitment to free and open debate "is not a license for the vicious verbal assault that occurred in this case."

"Respondents' outrageous conduct caused petitioner great injury, and the court now compounds that injury by depriving petitioner of a judgment that acknowledges the wrong he suffered," Alito said.

At issue in the case, Syder v. Phelps, was whether the Westboro Baptist Church and its protesting members could be sued for the emotional distress they caused to Albert Snyder when the church decided to use his son's military funeral to try to gain media attention for its controversial religious message.

Preacher Fred Phelps and his followers say that God is punishing the United States for its tolerance of gay rights by causing the deaths of US service members in overseas wars.

In March 2006, seven Westboro Baptist Church members took up a position outside the church where the funeral of US Marine Matthew Snyder was to be conducted. They displayed signs proclaiming: "Thank God for Dead Soldiers," and "You're Going to Hell."

The protesters stood in a cordoned off area approved by police about a thousand feet from the church. They sang songs and waved their signs. They conducted the protest for a half hour and left eight minutes after the funeral began.

Mr. Snyder later told reporters that the Westboro Baptist Church's selection of his son's funeral for the protest had tarnished forever his final moments with Matthew. He hired a lawyer and sued.

A jury awarded the grieving father $11 million in damages for intentional infliction of emotional distress. The district court judge reduced the award to $5 million. But the Fourth US Circuit Court of Appeals threw the entire verdict out, citing free speech protections.

In upholding that appeals court decision, the Supreme Court said the Westboro Baptist Church protest addressed an issue of importance to the public, and did so on public property in full compliance with local officials. …