The Supreme Court ruled earlier this week that the protesters from the Westboro Baptist Church have the right to picket near military funerals, but did make it clear that local and state governments can limit how close they can get to the actual cemeteries.
The Justices of the Supreme Court ruled in a controversial 8-1 ruling that the guarantee of freedom of speech outlined in the Constitution permits members of the Kansas church to congregate near the funeral of a soldier killed in Iraq singing hymns and carrying signs with such sayings as “Thank God for Dead Soldiers”.
However, the ruling was very narrow and only involved the financial damages in the case. Chief Justice John Roberts stated that the ruling did not impact a lot of the laws in 44 states which restrict how close protesters can get to the funeral site.
According to Roberts, “To the extent these laws are content neutral, they raise very different questions from the tort verdict at issue in this case.” The Justices tossed out an award of $5 million in damages that a federal court had previously awarded Albert Snyder whose son, Matthew, was a Marine who was killed in 2006. Matthew was not gay and was buried at a Catholic church in Maryland.
“Simply put, the church members had the right to be where they were,” Roberts wrote in the court’s opinion. “Given that the church’s speech was at a public place on a matter of public concern, that speech is entitled to ‘special protection’ under the First Amendment.”
Roberts also wrote that “speech is powerful. It can stir people into 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.”
Joining on Robert’s side of the majority were Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Antonin Scalia, Clarence Thomas, Stephen H. Breyer, Sonia Sotomayer, Elena Kagan and Anthony Kennedy.
In a separate opinion, Breyer wrote that “a state can sometimes regulate picketing, even picketing on matters of public concern. The Court’s ruling does not hold or imply that the state is always powerless to provide private individuals with necessary protections.”
At the funeral of Matthew Snyder, the protesters from the Westboro Baptist Church were about 1,000 feet away from the funeral. The sole Justice who voted against the protests, Justice Samuel Alito, wrote that “our profound national commitment to free and open debate is not a license for the vicious verbal assault that occurred in this case.”
Alito also pointed out that Snyder was not a public figure and only wanted to bury his son in peace. Alito argued that the court’s majority protected the rights of the protesters to “brutalize” Snyder. “In order to have a society in which public issues can be openly and vigorously debated, it is not necessary to allow the brutalization of innocent victims,” Alito argued.
While I personally believe in the right to freedom of speech, I believe that the Westboro Baptist Church has crossed a serious line and something has to be done about it.
Source: The Columbus Dispatch – Supreme Court rules for strident anti-gay church