Supreme Court rules Westboro Baptist protests are covered by free speech

By Marianne Medlin

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Westboro Baptist members protest in Nebraska. Credit: Andrew Lawlor

The Supreme Court upheld the free speech rights of a radical protest group after the father of a slain soldier filed a lawsuit against them for picketing his son's 2006 funeral.

In an 8 to 1 decision on March 2, the Supreme Court affirmed the First Amendment rights of the self-identified Westboro Baptist church. The group protested the Maryland funeral of 20 year-old Marine Lance Corporal Matthew Snyder, who died in Iraq in 2006.

Matthew's father, Albert Snyder, had filed a lawsuit seeking damages for the emotional distress inflicted by the protesters. The High Court upheld a previous ruling by the Fourth Circuit, which found that the church members were within their free speech rights.

The protest group, which hails from Topeka, Kansas, calls itself the “most controversial church in America.” The small community of members – founded by 81 year-old pastor Fred Phelps – hold the belief that God is punishing America for its tolerance of gays, Catholics and Jews by allowing the deaths of U.S. soldiers. At demonstrations, the protestors often hold signs that read “God Hates America” and “Thank God for Dead Soldiers.” The group also carries signs with anti-gay slurs.

Catholics are often specifically targeted by group members as well. Lance Corporal Matthew Snyder's picketed funeral Mass was held at St. John's Catholic Church, the family's parish in Westminster, Maryland. Westboro church members also recently threatened to protest at the Catholic funerals of nine year-old Christina Taylor Green and Judge John Roll. Both were were killed in a mass shooting in Tuscon, Arizona in January.

Chief Justice John Roberts, writing for the majority, said on Wednesday that Westboro members had a constitutional right to protest, regardless of how offensive their speech is.

“Westboro believes that America is morally flawed; many Americans might feel the same about Westboro,” Justice Roberts wrote.

“Westboro's funeral picketing is certainly hurtful and its contribution to public discourse may be negligible,” he added. “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.”

Chief Justice Roberts added that “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,” Justice Roberts said. “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.”

Justice Samuel Alito, however – as the only dissenter of the ruling – argued that  the First Amendment does not allow for causing severe emotional damage “by launching vicious verbal attacks that make no contribution to public debate.”

“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 wrote.

Both Justices Roberts and Alito concurred, however, that the controversial church targets high profile funerals where media attention is guaranteed as opposed to specific individuals.

Although Albert Snyder has not yet commented on the Supreme Court ruling, his attorney Sean Summers said, “It's not the decision (he) wanted.”

However, Snyder “realized there was a fair risk that he might lose the case,” Summers added. “Albert said last year that the tireless support he received from people across the country, and from his two daughters, inspired him to keep fighting.”

Synder – an electronics salesman who earns $43,000 a year – has had his massive legal bills covered through donations from thousands of individuals who supported his legal effort against Westboro.

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