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Wednesday, March 2, 2011

The Cost of Free Speech

"For the past 20-years, the congregation of the Westboro Baptist Church has picketed military funerals to communicate its belief that God hates the United States for its tolerance of homosexuality, particularly in America's military."  So reads the first line of today's 8-1 SCOTUS decision in the Snyder v Phelps case.

By now, the story is familiar to all of us: Albert Snyder's son, Marine Lance Corporal Matthew Snyder, was killed in action in Iraq.  Nearby Corporal Matthew's funeral, members of the Westboro Baptist Church protested, with many members of the congregation carrying anti-gay and anti-america signs.

Albert Snyder sued in federal court (pursuant to diversity of citizenship jurisdiction - when each party is from a different state), claiming the intentional infliction of emotional distress.  A jury awarded Mr. Snyder over 12 million dollars.  The Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals reversed the verdict on First Amendment grounds.

In affirming the 11th Circuit, the High Court stressed the particular set of facts, as developed by the parties to the dispute.  Key among those facts were that the church protesters advised the police of their planned protest in advance, and obeyed all the restrictions (i.e. staying 1000 feet away from the funeral) placed upon their gathering.

The lone dissenting justice, Samuel Alito, characterized the speech as a "vicious verbal assault" that did not merit First Amendment protection.

Only the hardened zealots among us would condone the disruption of the funerals of our nation's soldiers by protesting against gays in the military with such cheap attention-grabbing tactics.  Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes perhaps said it best:
If there is any principle of the Constitution that more imperatively calls for attachment than any other it is the principle of free thought – not free thought for those who agree with us but freedom for the thought we hate.
Chief Justice Roberts ultimately concluded, along with seven other justices, that the church members were legally allowed to be proximate to the funeral and say what they had to say.  The following excerpt from Roberts' decision perhaps best captures the spirit of Justice Holmes in the sanctity we place on freedom of speech:
Westboro believes that America is morally flawed; many Americans might feel the same about Westboro.  Westboro’s funeral picketing is certainly hurtful and its contribution to public discourse may be negligible….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.
Even particularly controversial, virulent and inflammatory free speech remains free; regardless of content.  In upholding the First Amendment in Snyder, the first case sited by Chief Justice Roberts was to the seminal case of Hustler Magazine, Inc vs Jerry Falwell.  That case, from the early 1970s, pitted the evangelical preacher against America's iconoclastic pornographer.
In order to be truly free, the content of our speech simply cannot be regulated by government.  There cannot be a "heckler's veto".

This case belongs to the progeny of the flag burning case from the 1990s and the Nazi march through Skokie, IL from the 1980s.  Each of those forms of controversial speech was protected back in its day; this is just the latest incarnation.

For the scholars among our readers, the oral arguments for this case are at this link.  Definately worth the hour to listen; you get a real feel as to the judicial persona of the various justices.

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