Anti-Gay Funeral Protesters Win Freedom of Speech Case at U.S. High Court

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 in Topeka, 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, forcing the justices to choose between endorsing broad speech rights and protecting private citizens from being targeted by offensive protests. Writing for the court, Chief Justice John Roberts said the latter option would mean “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,” Roberts wrote. “That choice requires that we shield Westboro from tort liability for its picketing in this case.”

Westboro members 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.

Roberts characterized the ruling as a narrow one that rested in part on Westboro’s compliance with police instructions about where the protest could be held.

“Simply put, the church members had the right to be where they were,” the chief justice wrote. He added, “The protest was not unruly; there was no shouting, profanity or violence.”

Alito Dissent

Justice Samuel Alito was the lone dissenter, saying Albert Snyder had a right to bury his son in peace.

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

Maryland has since passed a law that imposes restrictions on funeral picketing, and Roberts said 43 other states and the federal government have similar measures. He said those laws weren’t necessarily called into question by today’s ruling.

“To the extent these laws are content neutral, they raise very different questions from the tort verdict at issue in this case,” Roberts wrote.

Albert Snyder told reporters his first reaction to the ruling was that “eight justices don’t have the common sense God gave a goat.” He said he expects to have to pay the Phelps family $100,000 in court costs, money that he said will help pay for more protests.

Margie Phelps, daughter of Fred Phelps and his lead attorney in the case, called the ruling a “proper application of the law” and said it was “about 10 times better than I ever dreamed.”

ACLU and Palin

Bloomberg LP, the parent of Bloomberg News, was among 21 news organizations that urged the high court to reject the $5 million award. They argued that a decision allowing the award to stand would undermine free-speech rights.

The American Civil Liberties also urged rejection of the award, and today an official praised the ruling.

“The court’s decision properly and respectfully acknowledges the Snyder family’s grief,” said Stephen R. Shapiro, the group’s legal director. “But it correctly holds that the response to that grief cannot include the abandonment of core First Amendment principles designed to protect even the most unpopular speech on matters of public concern.”

Former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin was among the critics. “Common sense & decency absent as wacko ‘church’ allowed hate msgs spewed@ soldiers’ funerals but we can’t invoke God’s name in public square,” the Republican said on her Twitter account.

The case is Snyder v. Phelps, 09-751.

To contact the reporter on this story: Greg Stohr in Washington at gstohr@bloomberg.net.

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Mark Silva at msilva34@bloomberg.net.

Press spacebar to pause and continue. Press esc to stop.

Bloomberg reserves the right to remove comments but is under no obligation to do so, or to explain individual moderation decisions.

Please enable JavaScript to view the comments powered by Disqus.