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SCOTUS Rules For “Church Picketers” from Westboro Church In Funeral Picketing Case

SCOTUS Rules For “Church Picketers” from Westboro Church In Funeral Picketing Case

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.”

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photo courtesy of Burstein! via Flickr

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84 comments

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10:17PM PST on Jan 9, 2012

That "church" is not a church of God. I see nothing of God or Jesus in them. They are doing the Devil's work, sowing hatred and strife. In teaching their children to hate, they are sacrificing them on Satan's altar. If anyone is going to Hell, it's those people. We should pity them, and pray for their souls.

Jesus said, "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you." Do they truly want to have their sacred ceremonies picketed by people with signs of hate? That's what they're putting out to others. Jesus would weep for them.

Cheers for the Patriot Guard Riders!

9:58AM PDT on Mar 20, 2011

"On another note, I am amazed to hear about The Patriot Guard Riders! More attention should be brought to their cause and how selfless they are."

If the Riders sougt this out would they still be selfless?

6:09PM PDT on Mar 18, 2011

I'm sick of the double standards when it comes to defending freedom of speech. Yes, everyone should have the right to it. But the taste level of these picketers, specifically, is beyond unacceptable. I'm horrified for the family of this fallen Marine. On another note, I am amazed to hear about The Patriot Guard Riders! More attention should be brought to their cause and how selfless they are.

2:44PM PST on Mar 12, 2011

So sad that people like these exsist but even sadder that they are given an open stage to air their disturbed views. Why cant cases like these be judged by the man on the street not the law courts, as they so often they get it wrong.

8:25AM PST on Mar 6, 2011

that`s hate speech shouldn`t fall under freedom of speech.

7:39AM PST on Mar 6, 2011

Not quite sure how to react to the vehemence that liberals are heaping on WBC & the decision of th SCOTUS.

7:29AM PST on Mar 6, 2011

"I guess they believe the silent majority believes in their hate. Why don't people get off their lazy asses and counter protest?"

The "silent majority" is already doing just that.
"The Patriot Guard Riders (PGR) is a motorcycle club whose members attend the funerals of members of the United States armed forces at the invitation of the deceased’s family. Patriot Guard Riders' representatives state that they are not a chartered motorcycle club, but a group of patriotic individuals.

The group was formed in 2005, to shelter and protect the funerals from protesters from the Westboro Baptist Church, who claim that the deaths of American troops in Iraq and Afghanistan are divine retribution for American tolerance of homosexuality. PGR members position themselves to physically shield the mourners from the presence of the Westboro protesters by blocking the protesters from view with their motorcade, or by having members hold American flags. The group also drowns out the protesters' chants by singing patriotic songs or by revving motorcycle engines."

"ALR Praised For Action

Note: The Riders that started interfering with the WBC protests have formed a group called The Patriot, which consists of riders who espouse their tenets of showing sincere respect for our fallen heroes, their families, and their communities; and shielding the mourning family and friends from interruptions created by any protestor or group of protestors through strictly legal and non-violent means.

7:19AM PST on Mar 6, 2011

How about surrounding the WBC with a platoon of Marine guards?

2:09AM PST on Mar 6, 2011

If this is freedom of speech, I guess I can tell anyone I want to 'f*** off in public? Could I heckle and swear at the President?

10:09PM PST on Mar 5, 2011

My heart goes out to the family of the heroic Marine who gave his life for his country. No greater sacrifice can be made.

What I can't remove from my mind's eye, no matter how hard I try, is the image of the little boy in red pants proudly carrying a hate sign at a military funeral as he marches among the hill-dwellers who are his proud role models! What chance does that little boy have of ever growing into a normal adult?

As the parent of adult children, the death of the Marine leaves me saddened, and the response of the Westboro Church congregation leaves me enraged. But as a grandparent, the image of that little boy in red pants leaves me very much disturbed. Ignorance and hate have a way of perpetuating themselves, and sometimes it comes in the form of a little boy in red pants.

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