The U.S. Supreme Court, in an 8-1 ruling (Alito dissenting), ruled in favor of the right under the First Amendment for protesters from the Westboro Baptist Church to picket near the funerals of soldiers.
Here is a key piece of the Opinion, written by Chief Justice Roberts:
“The “content” of Westboro’s signs plainly relates tobroad issues of interest to society at large, rather than matters of “purely private concern.” Dun & Bradstreet, supra, at 759. The placards read “God Hates theUSA/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, homosexuality 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.” (p. 8)
The Court found the speech to be protected, and further found that such protection extended to public spaces, including public land near funerals:
“Westboro’s choice to convey its views in conjunction withMatthew Snyder’s funeral made the expression of those views particularly hurtful to many, especially to Matthew’s father. The record makes clear that the applicable legal term—”emotional distress”—fails to capture fully the anguish Westboro’s choice added to Mr. Snyder’s already incalculable grief. But Westboro conducted its picketingpeacefully on matters of public concern at a public place adjacent to a public street. Such space occupies a “special position in terms of First Amendment protection.” United States v. Grace, 461 U. S. 171, 180 (1983).” (p. 10)
The Court left open the possibility that there could be legislatively imposed, content-neutral, restrictions on picketing, but found that those restrictions did not apply in this case:
“Westboro’s choice of where and when to conduct its picketing is not beyond the Government’s regulatory reach—it is “subject to reasonable time, place, or manner restrictions” that are consistent with thestandards announced in this Court’s precedents. Clark v. Community for Creative Non-Violence, 468 U. S. 288, 293 (1984). Maryland now has a law imposing restrictions onfuneral picketing, Md. Crim. Law Code Ann. §10–205 (Lexis Supp. 2010), as do 43 other States and the Federal Government…. To the extent these laws are content neutral, they raise very different questions from the tort verdict at issue in this case. Maryland’s law, however, was not in effect at the time of the events at issue here, so we have no occasion to consider how it might apply to facts such as those before us, or whether it or other similar regulations are constitutional.” (p. 10-11)
The Court stressed that the picketers kept far away from the funeral, and that the challenge was made based on the content of the speech, not the fact of speech near the funeral:
“The record confirms that any distress occasioned by Westboro’s picketing turned on the content and viewpointof the message conveyed, rather than any interferencewith the funeral itself. A group of parishioners standingat the very spot where Westboro stood, holding signs that said “God Bless America” and “God Loves You,” would not have been subjected to liability. It was what Westboro said that exposed it to tort damages.
Given that Westboro’s speech was at a public place on amatter 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.” (p. 11-12)
The Court concluded:
“Speech is powerful. It can stir people to action, movethem 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 stiflepublic debate. That choice requires that we shield Westboro from tort liability for its picketing in this case.” (p. 15)
Justice Alito dissented:
“Our profound national commitment to free and open debate is not a license for the vicious verbal assault that occurred in this case.
Petitioner Albert Snyder is not a public figure. He is simply a parent whose son, Marine Lance Corporal Mat-thew Snyder, was killed in Iraq. Mr. Snyder wanted what is surely the right of any parent who experiences such anincalculable loss: to bury his son in peace. But respon-dents, members of the Westboro Baptist Church, deprivedhim of that elementary right. They first issued a press release and thus turned Matthew’s funeral into a tumultuous media event. They then appeared at the church, approached as closely as they could without trespassing, and launched a malevolent verbal attack on Matthew and his family at a time of acute emotional vulnerability. As a result, Albert Snyder suffered severe and lasting emotional injury. [fn] The Court now holds that the First Amendment protected respondents’ right to brutalize Mr. Snyder. I cannot agree.”
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