The U.S. Supreme Court, saying even hurtful speech is protected by the Constitution, ruled that members of a Kansas church can’t be punished for staging an anti-homosexual demonstration at a military funeral.
The justices, voting 8-1, said a lower court was right to throw out a $5 million award to a man who said the demonstration marred his son’s funeral. The protesters, from the Westboro Baptist Church, bore signs that said God was killing U.S. soldiers to punish the country for accepting homosexuality.
The case tested the limits of the First Amendment, prompting the justices to consider whether protesters have an unfettered right to direct offensive speech at private citizens.
The country has chosen “to protect even hurtful speech on public issues to ensure that we do not stifle public debate,” Chief Justice John Roberts wrote. “That choice requires that we shield Westboro from tort liability for its picketing in this case.”
Members of the Westboro Baptist Church have demonstrated at hundreds of military funerals, typically bearing signs that say, “Thank God for Dead Soldiers,” “Pope in hell,” “God Hates the USA” and “Fag troops.”
The leader of the church, Fred Phelps, was one of seven protesters at the 2006 funeral of Matthew Snyder, a Marine lance corporal who died in Iraq’s Anbar Province.
Thousand Feet Away
The demonstration was held 1,000 feet away from the Westminster, Maryland, Catholic church where the funeral was held. The Westboro website later featured an “epic” that said Snyder and his ex-wife “taught Matthew to defy his creator” and “raised him for the devil.”
Albert Snyder sued Fred Phelps and two of his daughters for intentional infliction of emotional distress. A jury awarded Snyder $10.9 million, an amount later reduced by a trial judge. A federal appeals court then threw out the entire award, and Snyder appealed to the nation’s highest court.
Justice Samuel Alito was the lone dissenter. “Our profound national commitment to free and open debate is not a license for the vicious verbal assault that occurred in this case.”
The case is Snyder v. Phelps, 09-751.
--With assistance from William McQuillen in Washington. Editors: Jim Rubin, Brigitte Greenberg.
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