When Law and Politics Bump Heads

Daily Herald (Arlington Heights, IL), March 7, 2011 | Go to article overview

When Law and Politics Bump Heads


My guess is that there was not a single member of the United States Supreme Court who was not personally appalled that the Westboro Baptist Church would target the funeral of a soldier who died in battle so they could get publicity for their anti-gay views. It is hard to think of any good reason why the Snyder family, having lost their beloved (and, if it matters, not gay) son while serving his country in Iraq, should be exposed to such abuse. And it's easy to understand why they would sue and seek the kind of damages that would ensure Westboro could not continue to abuse others.

Last week, the Supreme Court held in an 8-1 decision that the Snyders could not recover for the emotional distress intentionally inflicted on them, even though no one doubts that it was or that it was done so intentionally. With only Justice Samuel Alito dissenting, the Court's four liberals, all Democratic appointees, joined the remaining four conservatives, all Republican appointees, to hold that the First Amendment protected the church from being called to answer for the pain it had caused.

"Speech is powerful," Chief Justice John Roberts declared, writing for the majority. Here, two reasons demand its protection, the court held. First, however inarticulately and crudely, the signs and taunts of the Westboro Church members went directly to issues of public importance, which "occupies the highest rung of the hierarchy of First Amendment values." Second, the church members complied with all other laws applicable to the time, place and manner of public assembly. The distress, then, "turned on the content and viewpoint of the message conveyed," which is precisely what the First Amendment protects. …

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