Supreme Court Delivers 8-1 First Amendment Victory

The U.S. Supreme Court 8-1 ruling in the case of Snyder v Phelps is a victory for free speech, particularly the freedom of unpopular “speech” in the form of protests. The ruling states in part,

“Westboro stayed well away from the memorial service. Snyder could see no more than the tops of the signs when driving to the funeral. And there is no indication that the picketing in any way interfered with the funeral service itself. We decline to expand the captive audience doctrine to the circumstances presented here…
Our holding today is narrow. We are required in First Amendment cases to carefully review the record, and the reach of our opinion here is limited by the particular facts before us. As we have noted, “the sensitivity and significance of the interests presented in clashes between First Amendment and [state law] rights counsel relying on limited principles that sweep no more broadly than the appropriate context of the instant case.” Florida Star v. B. J. F., 491 U. S. 524, 533 (1989).
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 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.”

In his dissenting opinion, Justice Alito writes,

“Our profound national commitment to free and open debate is not a license for the vicious verbal assault that occurred in this case… The Court now holds that the First Amendment protected respondents’ right to brutalize Mr. Snyder. I cannot agree…
In this case, respondents brutally attacked Matthew Snyder, and this attack, which was almost certain to inflict injury, was central to respondents’ well-practiced strategy for attracting public attention. On the morning of Matthew Snyder’s funeral, respondents could have chosen to stage their protest at countless locations. They could have picketed the United States Capitol, the White House, the Supreme Court, the Pentagon, or any of the more than 5,600 military recruiting stations in this country. They could have returned to the Maryland State House or the United States Naval Academy, where they had been the day before. They could have selected any public road where pedestrians are allowed. (There are more than 4,000,000 miles of public roads in the United States.) They could have staged their protest in a public park. (There are more than 20,000 public parks in this country.) They could have chosen any Catholic church where no funeral was taking place. (There are nearly 19,000 Catholic churches in the United States.) But of course, a small group picketing at any of these locations would have probably gone unnoticed.”

It appears that Mr Alito would prohibit any and all unpopular speech if it weren’t for the First Amendment. Possibly he would rather establish “protest free buffer zones” around anyone that might be offended by the content of the protest.

Do I support the message of the Westboro Baptist Church? No.
Do I support the rights of the members to spread their message? Yes, and I support everyone’s right to freely express themselves and their ideas.

Though this case dealt specifically with protests of funerals by the Westboro Baptist Church, it is yet to be seen if the courts will include other forms of protest in the category of “protected free speech.” Maybe one day soon the Court will rule against the policy of creating “free speech zones” though I will not hold my breath for that decision.