Anti-gay protests protected by U.S. high court

by Jane Briggs-Bunting

By an overwhelming majority of 8-1, the “Super Supremes” ruled today to protect the free speech protests of Westboro Baptist Church members who have been picketing at the funerals of dead soldiers.

It was a stunning victory for free speech and the First Amendment and really endorses earlier U.S. Supreme Court rulings that even reprehensible speech is protected by the U.S. Constitution. It’s one of the bedrock principles the country was founded on.

While applauding the Court’s decision, I can empathize with the families, too. I want to take a long, hot cleansing shower every time I view media reports of the taunting anti-gay protests witnessed by grieving families. They have already sacrificed enough.

Free speech and free press are two of the five rights guaranteed in the 45 words of the First Amendment. Even though those words being uttered may be grossly offensive, short of being fighting words or shouting out “fire” in a crowded theater, they should be protected.

Snyder v. Phelps is not a landmark decision since those principles were already laid out in previous high court cases. The free speech protection of the First Amendment, as it should, trumped the tort of intentional infliction of emotional distress. A federal trial court jury had awarded the grieving family $11 million. The award was reduced by the trial judge to $5 million, but the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals overturned it, citing the First Amendment.

In affirming the appellate court decision, Chief Justice John Roberts wrote: “Given that Westboro’s speech was at a public place on a matter of public concern, that speech is entitled to ‘special protection’ under the First Amendment. Such speech cannot be restricted simply because it is upsetting or arouses contempt.”

The court also noted that states can and have passed laws that that regulate picketing at funerals to a reasonable time, place and manner. Forty-four states have already done so.

It was the right decision for the right reasons. That doesn’t always happen at our highest court.

6 replies »

  1. Agreed. The cost of allowing such speech is nowhere near the cost of banning it in the long run, I fear.

    It’s just that I now find myself on the same side of an argument with both Fred Phelps and John Roberts, and I don’t know that a simple shower is going to be enough…

  2. As sick as the WBC members may be, I would protect the fact that they can say what they want barring libel or direct threats. I would however think twice about getting in the face of a pissed off parent, trying to bury a dead son, to stand up for them.

  3. What I’ve always found curious is the apparent assumption by the WBC that picketing funerals somehow gets their message out effectively. It must be about the media attention because I can’t imagine how they’d think picketing a funeral would somehow win converts to their cause from the ranks of the mourners. So, while I agree with the SCOTUS decision, I’m leery of the “free speech” motives of the protesters and their circus show.

  4. If you picket highly emotionally-charged events, you increase the likelihood that someone will take some of illegal if entirely understandable action against you. Then you refuse to press charges, instead taking them to civil court for damages. Military funerals are perfect for this. It’s about the money.

    And winning converts? Unnecessary. Fred Phelps just breeds them himself and sends them to law school.

  5. What I’ve been waiting for is some explanation of Alito’s descent on this vote. I’m scratching my head at how such a consistently right-wing judge came out of New Jersey.