An 8-to-1 majority affirmed a lower court judgment that threw out damages awarded to Albert Snyder, who first sued the church for emotional distress he endured after it protested at his son's funeral. His son, Lance Cpl. Matthew Snyder, died in Iraq in 2006.
Chief Justice John Roberts, writing for the majority, said today's ruling is a narrow decision, dealing strictly with Westboro's picketing activity.
"Speech is powerful," Roberts wrote. "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," he said. "That choice requires that we shield Westboro from tort liability for its picketing in this case."
Roberts reasoned that for Albert Snyder to succeed in his claim that the church intentionally inflicted emotional distress on him and his family he had to demonstrate that the church deliberately or recklessly engaged in extreme and outrageous conduct when it protested at his son's funeral.
Roberts said that Snyder failed to meet that standard of proof because the protests were targeted to broad a public interest, occurred "peacefully" on public streets, complied with local ordinances, and were carried out with the permission of local authorities.
"Simply put, the church members had the right to be where they were," Roberts wrote.
He said that such a protest "occupies a special position in terms of First Amendment protection."
"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," Roberts wrote.
The placards carried by the congregation read in part: "Fags Doom Nations," "Don't Pray for the USA," "Thank God for Dead Soldiers."
The Court was not without sympathy for the trauma suffered by Snyder, however. "Westboro believes that America is morally flawed; many Americans might feel the same about Westboro," Roberts said. "Westboro's funeral picketing is certainly hurtful."
The sole dissenter was Justice Samuel Alito, who offered a scathing rebuke to the majority's reasoning. "Our profound national commitment to free and open debate," he wrote, "is not a license for the vicious verbal assault that occurred in this case."
"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 like petitioner," Alito said, adding that the Church's "outrageous conduct" caused Albert Snyder "great injury" and that the decision by the court "compounds that injury."
First Amendment experts said the court's decision was historic and precedent-setting.