The Supreme Court ruled decisively Wednesday that a fringe anti-gay group has a constitutionally protected right to stage hateful protests at the funerals of dead servicemen, saying “such speech cannot be restricted simply because it is upsetting or arouses contempt.”
In one of the year’s most closely watched cases, the Supreme Court in an 8-1 decision upheld a lower-court ruling to throw out a multimillion-dollar judgment that the father of a dead U.S. Marine from Maryland had won against the Westboro Baptist Church.
Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr., in writing the majority opinion, noted that “speech is powerful” and can “inflict great pain.”
“On the facts before us, we cannot react to that pain by punishing the speaker,” the chief justice wrote. “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.”
Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. rebuked the majority and wrote in a blistering dissent that “our profound national commitment to free and open debate is not a license for the vicious verbal assault that occurred in this case.”
The high court said Westboro Baptist’s protest is protected under the First Amendment because it focused on matters of public concern, namely the “political and moral conduct of the United States,” gays in the military and the sexual-abuse scandal surrounding the Catholic Church.
Chief Justice Roberts noted the “messages may fall short of refined social or political commentary,” but he said the church members have engaged in many such protests, and nothing suggests they used “speech on public matters” to “mask an attack on Snyder over a private matter.”
“And even if a few of the signs — such as “You’re Going to Hell” and “God Hates You” — were viewed as containing messages related to Matthew Snyder or the Snyders specifically, that would not change the fact that the overall thrust and dominant theme of Westboro’s demonstration spoke to broader public issues,” the chief justice wrote.