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
"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
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
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. …