WASHINGTON, March 2, 2011— -- The Supreme Court ruled today that the First Amendment protects members of the Westboro Baptist Church of Topeka, Kan., who have held provocative, anti-gay protests at military funerals.
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."
Church Opponents Say Protests Compound Grief
First Amendment experts said the court's decision was historic and precedent-setting.
"This is the kind of case that is going to have an influence for generations," said constitutional lawyer Cliff Sloan. "It is the supreme court standing up and giving constitutional protection to extremely unpopular speech. It's really what the first amendment is all about."
"The impact of this case is that it sends a very strong message to courts and to the entire country that speech however unpopular, gets constitutional protection," he said.
The Rev. Fred Phelps and other members of the Westboro Baptist Church have picketed outside many military funerals holding signs with offensive messages such as "God Hates You" and "God Hates Fags." The church believes military deaths in Iraq and Afghanistan are God's punishment for U.S. tolerance of homosexuality.
Margie J. Phelps, the lead counsel for the Westboro Baptist Church and the daughter of the church's pastor, Fred Phelps, had argued that her group has the right to exercise free speech and pickets funerals with "great circumspection and awareness of boundaries."
She said the church files permits with police before every protest and stays in restricted areas, often hundreds of yards from the proceedings.
"There is no line that could be drawn here without shutting down speech," Phelps told reporters after oral arguments last year. "You should all be thanking us for that heavy lifting we did in there."
Lawyers for Snyder argued that the justices should reinstate the $5 million award granted by a lower court for the pain inflicted by the protests. "We are talking about a funeral," attorney Sean E. Summers argued. "If context was ever going to matter, it has to matter for a funeral."
Snyder has called the day his son died the "worst day of his life." His grief was compounded, he said, by being targeted by the church's demonstrations. "It is one thing no family should ever have to go through."