Supreme Court: Westboro Baptist Church Can Picket Funerals

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In an 8-1 decision, the Supreme Court affirmed that the Westboro Baptist Church, the Kansas-based extended political/religious family of Fred Phelps, has the right to picket military funerals, despite the pain it causes those grieving. Justice Samuel Alito dissented.

The Westboro Baptist Church has been protesting military funerals for years, waiving signs that read "God Hates Fags" and "Thank God for Dead Soldiers" on the premise that the military is sinful for allowing gays to serve. Running into them is a major drag, especially before 9 a.m.

The Westboro people had been sued by the father of Marine Lance Corporal Matthew Snyder, after they picketed his son's funeral in Maryland. He alleged intentional infliction of emotional distress, intrusion upon seclusion, and civil conspiracy. After initially winning his case, the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals overturned the decision in favor of Westboro's argument that it was protected by the First Amendment.

Today, the Supreme Court affirmed it.

In the majority opinion, Chief Justice John Roberts wrote that "While these messages," e.g., "God Hates Fags," Thank God for IEDs," etc., "may fall short of refined social commentary, the issues they highlight--the political and moral conduct of the United States and its citizens, the fate of our Nation, homosexuality in the military, and scandals involving the Catholic clergy--are matters of public import."

Some salient extracts from the opinion:

Whether the First Amendment prohibits holding Westboro liable for its speech in this case turns largely on whether that speech is of public or private concern, as determined by all the circumstances of the case. "[S] peech on 'matters of public concern' . . . is 'at the heart of the First Amendment's protection.'" Dun & Bradstreet, Inc. v. Greenmoss Builders, Inc., 472 U. S. 749, 758-759 (1985) (opinion of Powell, J.) (quoting First Nat. Bank of Boston v. Bellotti, 435 U. S. 765, 776 (1978)). The First Amendment reflects "a profound national commitment to the principle that debate on public issues should be uninhibited, robust, and wide-open." New York Times Co. v. Sullivan, 376 U. S. 254, 270 (1964). That is because "speech concerning public affairs is more than self-expression; it is the essence of self-government." Garrison v. Louisiana, 379 U. S. 64, 74-75 (1964). Accordingly, "speech on public issues occupies the highest rung of the hierarchy of First Amendment values, and is entitled to special protection." Connick v. Myers, 461 U. S. 138, 145 (1983) (internal quotation marks omitted). ...
The "content" of Westboro's signs plainly relates to broad issues of interest to society at large, rather than matters of "purely private concern." Dun & Bradstreet, supra, at 759. The placards read "God Hates the USA/Thank God for 9/11," "America is Doomed," "Don't Pray for the USA," "Thank God for IEDs," "Fag Troops," "Semper Fi Fags," "God Hates Fags," "Maryland Taliban," "Fags Doom Nations," "Not Blessed Just Cursed," "Thank God for Dead Soldiers," "Pope in Hell," "Priests Rape Boys," "You're Going to Hell," and "God Hates You." App. 3781-3787. While these messages may fall short of refined social or political commentary, the issues they highlight--the political and moral conduct of the United States and its citizens, the fate of our Nation, homosexual- ity in the military, and scandals involving the Catholic clergy--are matters of public import. The signs certainly convey Westboro's position on those issues, in a manner designed, unlike the private speech in Dun & Bradstreet, to reach as broad a public audience as possible. And even if a few of the signs--such as "You're Going to Hell" and "God Hates You"--were viewed as containing messages related to Matthew Snyder or the Snyders specifically, that would not change the fact that the overall thrust and dominant theme of Westboro's demonstration spoke to broader public issues. ...
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. 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.
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Chris Good is a political reporter for ABC News. He was previously an associate editor at The Atlantic and a reporter for The Hill.

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