Supreme Court sides with Westboro Baptist Church

March 2, 2011

WASHINGTON (ABP) – The United States Supreme Court ruled 8-1 on
March 2 that anti-gay protests outside of military funerals by a
controversial Kansas Baptist church clan are protected speech under the
First Amendment.

The ruling overturned a jury decision that
held Westboro Baptist Church in Topeka, Kan., liable for millions of
dollars in damages for picketing near the Maryland funeral of a fallen
Marine with signs indicating that God was killing soldiers in Iraq and
Afghanistan in judgment of America’s toleration of homosexuality.

In its ruling, the high court upheld an appellate court’s overturning
of that decision that said the soldier’s father could not receive
damages for constitutionally protected speech simply because it was
hurtful.

The Supreme Court said the church’s picketing of
funerals with signs reading “God Hates Fags” and “Thank God for Dead
Soldiers” is “certainly hurtful and its contribution to public discourse
may be negligible,” but that freedom of speech does not depend on
whether or not the message is popular.

The justices agreed that
the church’s speech inflicted pain on grieving family members, but
declined to 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,”
Chief Justice John Roberts wrote in the majority opinion. “That choice requires that we shield Westboro from tort liability for its picketing in this case.”

Justice Samuel Alito filed a dissenting opinion, saying that while the
church’s speech might be protected if directed toward a public figure,
plaintiff Albert Snyder of York, Pa., was a private individual who
suffered “great injury” due to “outrageous conduct” by a group seeking
publicity.

“In 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 like the petitioner,” Alito opined.

Groups from across the political spectrum filed briefs supporting
Westboro Baptist Church’s case while acknowledging distaste for the
message. The ruling was one of the most anticipated in the current
Supreme Court term as a landmark case testing the limits of free speech.