The Supreme Court today upheld an appeals court ruling that threw out a $5 million judgment to the father of a dead Marine who had sued the Westboro Baptist Church for intentional infliction of emotional distress after they picketed his son’s funeral and posted a poem on their website attacking the way the Marine was raised.
The vote was 8-1 with Justice Breyer issuing a special concurrence and Justice Alito as the lone dissent.
The initial reaction to the decision has been one of a victory for First Amendment speech rights. The majority opinion, authored by Chief Justice, determined that the group’s picketing is entitled to “special protection” under the First Amendment, even if the picketing is outrageous and offensive.
Protecting free speech
The majority was careful to distance itself from the group and stressed that its holding was narrow and limited to the particular facts of the case. Roberts concern was clearly and emphatically to protect against the erosion of speech rights. “Westboro believes that America is morally flawed; many Americans might feel the same about Westboro. Westboro’s funeral picketing is certainly hurtful and its contribution to public discourse may be negligible.
But Westboro addressed matters of public import on public property, in a peaceful manner, in full compliance with the guidance of local officials. The speech was indeed planned to coincide with Matthew Snyder’s funeral, but did not itself disrupt that funeral, and Westboro’s choice to conduct its picketing at that time and place did not alter the nature of its speech.”
Speech is powerfulThe majority continues “[s]peech 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.”
But Justice Alito disagreed, and his dissent displays a key distinction that the majority chose to ignore. First, the party attacked here was a private figure and, as Alito points out, the First Amendment does not protect the right to brutalize a private figure. Westboro has almost limitless avenues to express their beliefs, so to suggest that they are entitle to “special” First Amendment protection is to allow their speech rights to serve as a shield from liability.
Furthermore, the group did not challenge directly the judgment on appeal–one for intentional infliction of emotional distress. Rather, it simply said that its outrageous and offensive speech was protected. But as Justice Alito notes, their very strategy depends on intentionally inflicting emotional distress in order to gain as much media attention as possible.
Keeping the group open to tort liability because of their speech is not the same thing as infringing on their speech rights. As Justice Alito said in closing, “[i]n order to have a society in which public issues can be openly and vigorously debated, it is not necessary to allow the brutalization of innocent victims.”
photo courtesy of Burstein! via Flickr
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