Supreme Court rules 8-1 in favor of Westboro Baptist Church over Gold Star Dad
Well, this is a bit of a heart breaker, but not altogether unexpected. I thought it would be 6-3, but we even lost the other two I thought we might get. As the AP tells us:
The Supreme Court ruled Wednesday that the First Amendment protects fundamentalist church members who mount anti-gay protests outside military funerals, despite the pain they cause grieving families.
The court voted 8-1 in favor of the Westboro Baptist Church of Topeka, Kan. The decision upheld an appeals court ruling that threw out a $5 million judgment to the father of a dead Marine who sued church members after they picketed his son's funeral.
Chief Justice John Roberts wrote the opinion for the court. Justice Samuel Alito dissented.
Roberts said the First Amendment shields the funeral protesters, noting that they obeyed police directions and were 1,000 feet from the church.
I will be updating this as I go through it, but some choice passages:
Westboro’s choice to convey its views in conjunction with Matthew Snyder’s funeral made the expression of those views particularly hurtful to many, especially to Matthew’s father. The record makes clear that the applicable legal term—"emotional distress"—fails to capture fully the anguish Westboro’s choice added to Mr. Snyder’s already incalculable grief. But Westboro conducted its picketing peacefully on matters of public concern at a public place adjacent to a public street. Such space occupies a "special position in terms of First Amendment protection."
Simply put, the church members had the right to be where they were. Westboro alerted local authorities to its funeral protest and fully complied with police guidance onwhere the picketing could be staged. The picketing was conducted under police supervision some 1,000 feet from the church, out of the sight of those at the church. The protest was not unruly; there was no shouting, profanity, or violence.
The record confirms that any distress occasioned by Westboro’s picketing turned on the content and viewpoint of the message conveyed, rather than any interference with the funeral itself. A group of parishioners standing at the very spot where Westboro stood, holding signs that said "God Bless America" and "God Loves You," would not have been subjected to liability. It was what Westboro said that exposed it to tort damages.
Our holding today is narrow. We are required in First Amendment cases to carefully review the record, and the reach of our opinion here is limited by the particular facts before us. As we have noted, "the sensitivity and significance of the interests presented in clashes between First Amendment and [state law] rights counsel relying on limited principles that sweep no more broadly than the appropriate context of the instant case."
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 stiflepublic debate. That choice requires that we shield Westboro from tort liability for its picketing in this case.
Unsurprisingly, I tend to agree with Justice Alito's dissent,
Our profound national commitment to free and open debate is not a license for the vicious verbal assault that occurred in this case.
Petitioner Albert Snyder is not a public figure. He is simply a parent whose son, Marine Lance Corporal Matthew Snyder, was killed in Iraq. Mr. Snyder wanted what is surely the right of any parent who experiences such anincalculable loss: to bury his son in peace. But respondents, members of the Westboro Baptist Church, deprivedhim of that elementary right. They first issued a pressrelease and thus turned Matthew’s funeral into a tumultuous media event. They then appeared at the church,approached as closely as they could without trespassing,and launched a malevolent verbal attack on Matthew and his family at a time of acute emotional vulnerability. As a result, Albert Snyder suffered severe and lasting emotional injury. The Court now holds that the First Amendment priotected respondents right to brutalize Mr. Snyder. I cannot agree.
This Court has recognized that words may "by their veryutterance inflict injury" and that the First Amendment does not shield utterances that form "no essential part of any exposition of ideas, and are of such slight social value as a step to truth that any benefit that may be derived from them is clearly outweighed by the social interest in order and morality." ("[P]ersonal abuse is not in any proper sense communication of information or opinion safeguarded by the Constitution"). When grave injury isintentionally inflicted by means of an attack like the one at issue here, the First Amendment should not interfere with recovery.
…it is abundantly clear that respondents, going far beyond commentary on matters of public concern, specifically attacked Matthew Snyder because (1) he was a Catholic and (2) he was a member of the United States military. Both Matthew and petitioner were private figures, and this attack was not speech on a matter of public concern. While commentary on the Catholic Church or the United States military constitutes speech on matters of public concern, speech regarding Matthew Snyder’s purely private conduct does not.
Respondents’ outrageous conduct caused petitionergreat injury, and the Court now compounds that injury bydepriving petitioner of a judgment that acknowledges thewrong he suffered. In order to have a society in which public issues can beopenly and vigorously debated, it is not necessary to allow the brutalization of innocent victims like petitioner. I therefore respectfully dissent.
My thoughts on this pretty much mirror the dissent, but nonetheless…
As I noted above, the Court first addressed the “message” of the signs, and determined it was a matter of public concern, and not a private one. However, I am not entirely certain I buy that. Clearly their choice of venue was selected to create a scene. Certainly there are many available parks they could have used for this protest. In the dissent, Alito notes:
On the morning of Matthew Snyder’s funeral, respondents could have chosen to stage their protest at countless locations. They could have picketed the United States Capitol, the White House, the Supreme Court, the Pentagon, or any of the more than 5,600 military recruiting stations in this country. They could have returned to the Maryland State House or the United States Naval Academy, where they had been the day before. They could have selected any public road where pedestrians are allowed. (There are more than 4,000,000 miles of public roads in the United States.2) They could have staged their protest in a public park. (There are more than 20,000 public parks in this country.3) They could have chosen any Catholic church where no funeral was taking place.(There are nearly 19,000 Catholic churches in the United States.4) But of course, a small group picketing at any of these locations would have probably gone unnoticed.
Now, taken as a whole, I suppose the signs do touch on a public concern, although it is one I can’t fathom. However, look at some individual signs. Again, from Alito:
Even if those who attended the funeral were not alerted in advance about respondents’ intentions, the meaning of these signs would not have been missed. Since respondents chose to stage their protest at Matthew Snyder’s funeral and not at any of the other countless available venues, a reasonable person would have assumed that there was a connection between the messages on the placards and the deceased.
Moreover, since a church funeral is an event that naturally brings to mind thoughts about the afterlife, some of respondents’ signs—e.g., “God Hates You,” “Not Blessed Just Cursed,” and “You’re Going to Hell”—would have likely been interpreted as referring to God’s judgment of the deceased. Other signs would most naturally have been understood as suggesting—falsely—that Matthew was gay. Homosexuality was the theme of many of the signs. There were signs reading “God Hates Fags,” “Semper Fi Fags,” “Fags Doom Nations,” and “Fag Troops.” Id., at 3781–3787. Another placard depicted two men engaging in anal intercourse. A reasonable bystander seeing those signs would have likely concluded that they were meant to suggest that the deceased was a homosexual.
I think this argument is borne out by the fact that numerous commenters on a previous post asked if Matthew was in fact gay. He was not. If “You’re Going to Hell” was not a reference to Matthew, what public concern was it aimed at? Who is the “You” if not Matthew or his family?
Further, look at the “Epic” of Matthew that came out just after the funeral. Again, assuming that the protest itself was to address a matter of public concern, then what context does the “epic” place on such. For instance, that epic states that:
God blessed you, Mr. and Mrs. Snyder, with a resource and his name was Matthew. He was an arrow in your quiver! In thanks to God for the comfort the child could bring you, you had a DUTY to prepare that child to serve the LORD his GOD—PERIOD! You did JUST THE OPPOSITE—you raised him for the devil.
Assuming the factual validity of their statement, that the Snyders “raised him for the devil”, which I don’t think anyone would agree with, but assuming it is true, how exactly would that be an issue of public concern?
But, it is what it is. Of the possible avenues one has to immunize themselves from the Westboro Baptist Church, Intentional Infliction of Emotional Distress is not one of them. Thankfully the court did not invalidate the Time, Manner, Place restrictions that the states have enacted to keep these guys away from the funerals, hopefully that will be enough.