Supreme Court Decides on Westboro Baptist Church Case
March 2, 2011 3 Comments
Earlier today, the Supreme Court (U.S.) released its decision on Snyder v. Phelps. This is the case where Snyder, the father of a fallen Marine, sued Fred Phelps and Westboro Baptist Church for picketing his son’s funeral.
The Supreme Court decided in favor of the Phelpses.
Having read the decision, the decision in favor of Westboro troubles me. It seems that the Court has taken the easy way out (though undoubtedly unpopular).
Firstly, it does not even consider Westboro’s actions as harassing, only as “speech on broad public issues.” Secondly, it holds that the signs that specifically target Lance Corporal Snyder and his family were irrelevant, because their overall message was one speaking of “moral” and “religious” issues. The Court also holds that since the protest was on public property, complying with police orders, and out of sight of the church itself, that while the protest was scheduled and located to be in the same place and time as Lance Corporal Snyder’s funeral, it was not intentionally causing emotional distress. Thirdly, they did not consider a posting by a member of Westboro post-funeral that personally attacked Matthew and his parents, (though it was brought up at trial) which would prove that the protest was not public commentary, but rather a personal attack. (Since apparently, the signs were not enough. I won’t quote them here, because they’re triggering and hateful, but if you wish to know, some are mentioned in the New York Times article, and most in the Court’s decision itself.)
Justice Alito was the sole dissenter, and wrote a very good opinion. I urge you to read it, even if you’re not interested in reading the entire decision, which is thirty-six pages long. Alito’s dissent begins on page twenty-three of the PDF.
Here are some excerpts from Alito’s dissent:
“In light of this evidence, 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.
JUSTICE BREYER provides an apt analogy to a case in which the First Amendment would permit recovery in tortfor a verbal attack:
“[S]uppose that A were physically to assault B, knowing that the assault (being newsworthy) would provide A with an opportunity to transmit to the public his views on a matter of public concern. The constitutionally protected nature of the end would not shield A’s use of unlawful, unprotected means. And in some circumstances the use of certain words as means would be similarly unprotected.” Ante, at 1 (concurring opinion).
“This captures what respondents did in this case. Indeed, this is the strategy that they have routinely employed—and that they will now continue to employ—inflicting severe and lasting emotional injury on an evergrowing list of innocent victims.”
*note: The next excerpt uses an acronym, IIED, which means intentional infliction of emotional distress.
“The Court concludes that respondents’ speech wasprotected by the First Amendment for essentially three reasons, but none is sound.
“First—and most important—the Court finds that “the overall thrust and dominant theme of [their] demonstration spoke to” broad public issues. As I have attempted to show, this portrayal is quite inaccurate;respondents’ attack on Matthew was of central importance. But in any event, I fail to see why actionable speech should be immunized simply because it is interspersed with speech that is protected. The First Amendment allows recovery for defamatory statements that are interspersed with nondefamatory statements on matters of public concern, and there is no good reason why respondents’ attack on Matthew Snyder and his family should be treated differently.
“Second, the Court suggests that respondents’ personal attack on Matthew Snyder is entitled to First Amendment protection because it was not motivated by a private grudge, but I see no basis for the strange distinction that the Court appears to draw. Respondents’ motivation—“to increase publicity for its views,” ibid.—did not transform their statements attacking the character of a private figure into statements that made a contribution to debate on matters of public concern. Nor did their publicity-seeking motivation soften the sting of their attack. And as far as culpability is concerned, one might well think that wounding statements uttered in the heat of a private feud are less, not more, blameworthy than similar statements made as part of a cold and calculated strategy to slash a stranger as a means of attracting public attention.
“Third, the Court finds it significant that respondents’ protest occurred on a public street, but this fact aloneshould not be enough to preclude IIED liability. To be sure, statements made on a public street may be less likely to satisfy the elements of the IIED tort than state-ments made on private property, but there is no reason why a public street in close proximity to the scene of a funeral should be regarded as a free-fire zone in which otherwise actionable verbal attacks are shielded from liability. If the First Amendment permits the States to protect their residents from the harm inflicted by such attacks—and the Court does not hold otherwise—then the location of the tort should not be dispositive. A physical assault may occur without trespassing; it is no defense that the perpetrator had “the right to be where [he was].” And the same should be true with respect to unprotected speech. Neither classic “fighting words” nor defamatory statements are immunized when they occur in a public place, and there is no good reason to treata verbal assault based on the conduct or character of a private figure like Matthew Snyder any differently.”
I’m very disappointed when our Supreme Court seems to value speech indiscriminately to the detriment to all other rights, and arguing that hurtful, hateful, harassing speech should be protected as a buffer between restricted speech and…all other kinds of free, protected speech. We do not need a buffer. We apparently need a clear line to draw between harassment and free speech.