U.S. Supreme Court: Westboro Baptist Church’s Hate Speech is Protected Free Speech
In a painful yet predictable decision, the United States Supreme Court today ruled 8-1 in favor of the Westboro Baptist Church (WBC) and its disgustingly bigoted hate speech. The ruling in Snyder v. Phelps was as correct as it was uncomfortable. WBC members, led by their vile pastor Fred Phelps, have picketed the funerals of US troops killed in Iraq and Afghanistan, holding up signs that blame America’s tolerance for homosexuality and abortion for their deaths and for other calamities like the 9/11 terror attacks. One of the signs read: ‘GOD HATES FAGS’. ‘THANK GOD FOR DEAD SOLDIERS’, another said. ‘YOUR SONS ARE IN HELL’ read yet another. You get the idea. This is the most vile, despicable sort of free speech imaginable. But it is free speech nonetheless.
Writing for the majority, Chief Justice John Roberts stated that WBC “addressed matters of public import on public property, in a peaceful manner, in full compliance with the guidance of local officials. It did not disrupt Mathew Snyder’s funeral, and its choice to picket at that time and place did not alter the nature of its speech… 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. 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.”
Mathew Snyder was a Marine killed in a Humvee accident in Iraq in 2006. His father filed suit against the Topeka, Kansas-based WBC, asking the Supreme Court to re-instate a $5 million civil verdict against the church that was overturned by an appeals court on First Amendment grounds.
Justice Samuel Alito Jr. was the lone dissenting voice in the case. “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. “Mr. Snyder wanted what is surely the right of any parent who experiences such an incalculable loss: to bury his son in peace,” he continued, “but… members of the Westboro Baptist Church deprived him of that elementary right.”
But Alito’s argument is a dangerous one because it opens the door for future restrictions on free speech. Who gets to decide what’s too painful to be said? The very word ‘painful’ is so subjective as to immediately disqualify it for consideration in rulings of such gravity. One can make an argument for prohibiting speech if it incites others to violence, but the same cannot be said for speech that is simply hurtful, no matter how hurtful it may be. Westboro Baptist Church and the Fred Phelpses of the world are the price that we pay in this country for free speech. Defending that freedom may be uncomfortable at times, but it must be done. Today’s Supreme Court decision was both necessary and right.
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