Opinion Brief

Westboro Baptist Church wins Supreme Court ruling: The right decision?

The highest court in the land rules that the strategically offensive anti-gay protests by Fred Phelps' church are protected by the First Amendment

The Supreme Court has ruled that the First Amendment protects the Westboro Baptist Church's controversial protests of military funerals. In an 8-1 decision, the court said that the church, led by pastor Fred Phelps, was exercising its freedom of speech in displaying signs reading "Thank God for Dead Soldiers" and "Fags Doom Nations" at the funeral of Marine Lance Corporal Matthew Snyder. (The Kansas-based church preaches that the U.S. war dead are God's punishment for America's tolerance of homosexuality.) The case was filed by Snyder's father Albert, who won over $10 million damages against the church in 2008 in a Maryland district court for "emotional distress, intrusion upon seclusion, and civil conspiracy." The Court of Appeals overturned that decision, and now the Supreme Court has agreed. Did it make the right decision? (Watch a Fox News report about the decision)

Yes. That's the price of having free speech: No matter how "loathsome" the Westboro Baptist Church may be, says Alana Goodman at Commentary, "the court's decision is correct." The "universally despised" group is better opposed by counter-protests or picketing laws, not by ignoring the constitution. "The price of free speech is that we have to put up with the worst of it.""Supreme Court rules in favor of Westboro Baptist Church"

No. When words are used to hurt, we shouldn't protect them: The First Amendment should not be used to justify the "vicious verbal assault that occurred in this case," says Justice Samuel Alito in his citation of dissent. In fact, the Supreme Court has ruled before that words can, "by their very utterance, inflict injury." That is clearly what happened to Lance Corporal Snyder's family. The First Amendment was not designed to uphold this type of "malevolent verbal attack.""ALBERT SNYDER, PETITIONER v. FRED W. PHELPS, SR., ET AL"

We can't equate words with violence: Alito's "surprisingly touchy-feely" citation goes too far, says Tim Cavanaugh at Reason. Being attacked by nasty words is not the same as a physical attack — you can ignore one, but not the other. And, as Alito's colleague Chief Justice John Roberts wrote, Westboro's protests did not single out Snyder's family but were "general in nature." Calling it a personal assault "seems like a stretch to me.""What speech would be free in Alitopia?"

The Court should have ruled on 'buffer zones': Chief Justice Roberts suggested that creating "buffer zones" might be a better way to legislate against offensive protests, points out Doug Mataconis at Outside the Beltway. But isn't that just another way to silence free speech? Imposing "time, place, and manner regulations" have First Amendment implications, too. "The Courts need to address these issues, and they need to do so carefully." "Supreme Court: Westboro Baptist Church funeral protests are protected speech"

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