Free speech for all

The U.S. Supreme Court on Wednesday delivered a victory for free speech.

As we have found over the years, the freedom of speech is not one that is universally appreciated, especially when the speech being protected is unpleasant and hate-filled.

That’s the case in this instance tackled by the high court. Eight of the justices, including Chief Justice John Roberts, held that Westboro Baptist Church had no liability in a suit brought by the father of a soldier killed in Iraq whose funeral was picketed by members of the church.

A trial court had found that Westboro was liable on allegations of invasion of privacy, intentional infliction of emotional distress and civil conspiracy when sued by the family of U.S. Marine Corps Lance Cpl. Matthew Snyder.

Westboro church members, led by church founder Fred Phelps, traveled from Kansas to picket Snyder’s funeral in Westminster, Md., near Baltimore.

There, the church members picketed, holding up signs celebrating Snyder’s death and declaring that God hates the United States because it tolerates homosexuality. The church’s signs carried messages such as, “Thank God for dead soldiers,” and “AIDS cures fags.”

A jury awarded the family $2.9 million in compensatory damages, and $8 million in punitive damages. The punitive damages later were cut to $5 million.

Appeals took the case to the Supreme Court, where Westboro prevailed.

“Because this nation has chosen to protect even hurtful speech on public issues to ensure the public debate is not stifled, Westboro must be shielded from tort liability for its picketing in this case,” Roberts wrote.

Justice Samuel Alito, the lone dissenter in the case, wrote that the majority had decided that the First Amendment protected the right of the protesters to “brutalize” Lance Cpl. Snyder’s father, Albert. “I cannot agree.”

Certainly Alito’s position is a sympathetic one. It is, however, also the incorrect one.

Much as we all would spare Albert Snyder the pain he suffered, the cost to do so is a high one.

It’s worth pointing out that after two decades of putting their beliefs on public display, Phelps’ tiny band of malcontents has remained that: tiny. He has won no new adherents and arguably has driven off potential allies by his choice of vicious tactics.

Phelps and members of his church have picketed some 600 funerals for 20 years now, earning contempt instead of respect.

Phelps today has a Supreme Court decision in his favor, but he has gained no favor in the minds of his countrymen.

He stands today as a reminder that speech is free, but there can be no requirement that anyone else listen.

We have heard already what Phelps and his congregation have to say and while the court has found that he may speak, the rest of the country long ago decided his message is barren and wanting.


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