Supreme Court Rules Westboro Baptist Church Has Right To Protest Soldiers' Funerals
Fred Phelps and the Westboro Baptist
In an 8-1 vote, Supreme Court Justices voted in favor of the Westboro Church, ruling that the protesters are protected by the First Amendment, no matter how offensive their anti-gay, anti-military message might be to some.
The church and Fred Phelps were being sued by Maryland resident Albert Snyder, the father of the late Matthew Snyder, a soldier who died in Iraq in 2006. Albert Snyder cited “emotional distress” as the reason for his lawsuit. Phelps and his family protested at Matthew Snyder’s funeral with signs that read “God Hates America” and “Semper Fi Fags”.
The court had originally awarded the Snyder family $11 million in damages, which was later reduced to $5 million and eventually thrown out in the appeals court ruling in favor of the Westboro Church. Chief Justice Roberts said that the church’s right to protest - no matter where they do it - was protected by their constitutional rights.
"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," wrote Justice Roberts in his opinion, “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."
Supreme Court Justice Samuel A. Alito’s opinion differed; he argued that it was neither the time or place for the Westboro Church to be expressing their anti-gay views.
"Our profound national commitment to free and open debate is not a license for the vicious verbal assault that occurred in this case," Alito wrote.
"Petitioner Albert Snyder is not a public figure. He is simply a parent whose son … was killed in Iraq. Mr. Snyder wanted what is surely the right of any parent who experiences such an incalculable loss: to bury his son in peace. But respondents, members of the Westboro Baptist Church, deprived him of that elementary right."