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.