U.S. Supreme Court Upholds Free Speech Rights of Westboro Baptist Church

By Susan Brinkmann, OCDS
Staff Journalist

In an 8-1 ruling in Snyder v. Phelps, the United States Supreme Court has declared that members of the Westboro Baptist Church have a First Amendment right to air their opposition to policies and laws condoning homosexuality by staging peaceful protests during high-profile military funerals.

The Rutherford Institute, a non-profit legal institute, is reporting that in the decision, which was handed down yesterday, Chief Justice John Roberts declared, “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. On the facts before us, we cannot react to that pain by punishing the speaker.”

Justice Samuel Alito was the lone dissenter in the case and he viewed the protesters’ speech as targeting a private person — the father of the dead soldier — and said that the First Amendment does not give license to such outrageous conduct.

“Our profound national commitment to free and open debate is not a license for the vicious verbal assault that occurred in this case,” he wrote. “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.”

Members of the Westboro Baptist Church (WBC), which was established by Fred Phelps Sr. in Topeka, Kansas in 1955, have increasingly staged public demonstrations in recent years in conjunction with relatively high-profile funerals, particularly military funerals, to assert their religious belief that God hates homosexuality and is punishing America for its tolerance of homosexuality. The group is notorious for showing up with funerals sporting signs that read: “You’re going to hell,” “God hates you,” “Semper fi fags,” and “Thank God for dead soldiers.”

In 2006, Albert Snyder sued Phelps, the church, and several church members for demonstrating near his son’s military funeral in Maryland. Snyder’s son Matthew, a Marine, was killed in Iraq on March 3, 2006. A subsequent trial in federal district court resulted in a jury verdict against WBC in the amount of $10.9 million, which was later reduced to $2.1 million by the court. On appeal, the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals reversed the lower court’s ruling, holding that notwithstanding the distasteful and repugnant nature of the defendants’ expression, it is constitutionally protected speech.

In a telephone interview with the Baltimore Sun, Margie Phelps, a lawyer and the daughter of Westboro’s founder, called the opinion “a victory by God” that was “10 times better than I ever imagined.”

Snyder, who now lives in York, Pa., called it a sad day for military families.

“We found out today that we can no longer bury our dead with dignity,” he said while standing outside the York County Courthouse Wednesday afternoon, flanked by his two attorneys, who donated their time to his case. The opinion means “anything goes,” Snyder said, adding that there’s now “nothing stopping Westboro from going to your daughter’s wedding,” because they don’t like the Catholic Church.

But many constitutional lawyers are praising the decision.

“The Supreme Court’s decision is a major victory for free speech,” said John W. Whitehead, president of The Rutherford Institute, which filed an amicus brief in the case. “Robust free speech—even of the extreme variety—in the open marketplace of ideas is one of the few hopes we have as citizens, and it is something we must protect.”

Whitehead refers to a judgment rendered by Judge K. Hall who once wrote about the need to protect free speech rights: “One who would defend the Fourth Amendment must share his foxhole with scoundrels of every sort, but to abandon the post because of the poor company is to sell freedom cheaply. It is a fair summary of history to say that the safeguards of liberty have often been forged in controversies involving not very nice people.’”

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