Wednesday, March 2, 2011

SCOTUS Docketwatch–Court sides with Westboro Baptist Church

Around 10 AM today, the Supreme Court, in an 8-1 decision, ruled that the First Amendment protects fundamentalists of the Westboro Baptist Church, known for their anti-homosexual protests outside of military funerals.  The immediate consequence is that the decision upholds the Court of Appeals ruling that threw out a $ 5 million judgment that was awarded to a father of a slain marine.

When we last covered the arguments, it was clear that this would be an interesting choice by the justices, who really strained to find some sort of argument to rule against the Church group.  But, it seems that the Church’s argument of their right to promote “ a broad-based message on public matters” is embedded within the constitution’s first amendments protection of speech.

Chief Justice Robert wrote the majority opinion for Snyder v. Phelps, with Justice Alito as the sole dissenter. 

UPDATE: Here is a breakdown of the Majority Opinion, which can be found at :

Roberts framed the issue around whether the Speech of the Westboro Church members was a ‘matter of public concern’, which The Court has ruled is at the very heart of the First Amendment’s Protection.  The key distinction between Private and Public speech is that “There is no threat to the free and robust debate of public issues; [and] no potential interference with a meaningful dialogue of ideas” in regard to censoring private speech. See Dun & Bradstreet, Inc. v. Greenmoss Builders, Inc., 472 U.S. 749 (1985).  To determine whether speech is a public or private concern, Roberts noted that The Court must look to the “content, form and context” of the speech in question, in order to make an independent decision so as not to intrude on free expression. 

Now, this is where the decision gets particularly interesting, on pages 8-9:

The “content” of Westboro’s signs plainly relates to broad issues of interest to society at large, rather than matters of “purely private concern.”  The placards read “God Hates the USA/Thank God for 9/11,” “America is Doomed,” “Don’t Pray for the USA,” “Thank God for IEDs,” “Fag Troops,” “Semper Fi Fags,” “God Hates Fags,” “Maryland Taliban,”“Fags Doom Nations,” “Not Blessed Just Cursed,” “Thank God for Dead Soldiers,” “Pope in Hell,” “Priests Rape Boys,” “You’re Going to Hell,” and “God Hates You.” While these messages may fall short of refined social or political commentary, the issues they highlight—the political and moral conduct of the United States and its citizens, the fate of our Nation, homosexuality in the military, and scandals involving the Catholic clergy—are matters of public import. The signs certainly convey Westboro’s position on those issues, in a manner designed, unlike the private speech in Dun & Bradstreet, to reach as broad a public audience as possible. 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.

At the end of the opinion, Roberts concludes by writing:

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. That choice requires that we shield Westboro from tort liability for its picketing in this case.

I’ll have more later as I dissect the opinion in full, along with Justice Alito’s dissent.

1 comment:

  1. I guess that seems fair as long as their protests stay as just speech. sticks, and stones etc....