Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Supreme Court Defends Westburo Church Funeral Protests

Honestly, I'm really not sure what to think about this.

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."

Freedom of speech is a cornerstone of the United States. And certainly, silencing people's views often ends up backfiring. It's like suppressing negative thoughts. For awhile, things are ok, but in the end, whatever was pushed down returns, often more forcefully. Marginalized and fringe groups who are shut down sometimes end up turning to violence, feeling that killing people and destroying things are the only way to get heard. So, I tend to align myself with efforts to allow people to speak.

At the same time, our government and courts don't have the same allegiance to free speech when it comes to people whose views are seen as "a threat" to government policy in some form. Just last fall, several peace activists here in Minnesota were arrested on trumped up charges linking their public actions to terrorist organizations, and threatening them with jail time. That's just one example. So, I find it hollow to listen to powerful people defend the rights of Westburo Church members to spread hate at funerals of all places when others' speech is less respected by the law.

In addition, whenever one of these decisions occurs, there seems to be a lack of connection made between freedom of speech and the fact that with that, comes consequences. Saying Westburo should be free to say whatever they want without fear of tort liability is kind of disturbing. It can send a message that speech has no real consequences other than people getting angry and upset at you.

And let's move beyond that to the fact that they are doing these protests at funerals. That this mostly single family "church" is appearing at an intimate event where they have zero connection to the people there - who are grieving, who are suffering, who are viewing the event as part of their healing process - and they are using this event to spread vile hate messages. If funerals are now public events open to anyone who has an axe to grind about anything, well, I find that deeply troubling. I don't think this court decision explicitly says funerals are public and wide open, but it certainly could be interpreted that way going forward.

So, I'm torn. How about you?


melissa said...

thank you for your measured, resonant thoughts on words and consequences.

i am not by any means a legal scholar. from what i understand, there are indeed limits on free speech, eg. yelling fire in a crowded theater.

however, i agree with the court's ruling in phelps' favor, while i completely and totally disagree with what phelps is saying. i found the aclu's amicus brief ( on behalf of phelps helpful in understanding at the very least what exactly happened during the protest.

i also think that the current interpretation of the 1st amendment in america is particularly valuable especially in light of similar issues in europe, ie. with respect to danish cartoons or the trial of geert wilders.

Blake said...

Something that should be noted about Westburo is that they are all Civil Rights lawyers, handling their own cases. This makes it very easy for them to defend themselves and they are damn good at it. Taking them to court is playing into their hands.

With regards to people who have been arrested and detained because of their means of protests, odds are the Supreme Court would overthrow those convictions. But you have to take things to the Supreme Court, they won't step in. If the government is blatantly violating the Constitution, nothing will be done until somebody takes the issue to court.

Westburo is happy to go to court and since they represent themselves, they only have to cover court costs. The same is not true for most protesters.

Nathan said...

"Westburo is happy to go to court and since they represent themselves, they only have to cover court costs. The same is not true for most protesters." This is a huge point. And for the most part, poor folks and people who are part of unpopular social/political movements don't have the legal skills, time, or money (to live on for the years it takes to move through the court system) to get any decisions tossed out.

Chong Go Sunim said...

I think it's something about wishing ill upon others that I find disturbing about their activities. Likewise, their going out of their way to cause distress to family members who are already suffering.

What good is going to come from increasing other's suffering?

Algernon said...

One of those ugly cases where we reaffirm the right to repulsive speech. I would be tempted to call the Westboro people's behavior "inhuman" except that I think it would be an insult to the other species. Still, I would not want to see their speech dealt with as tort liability. Then we get into this realm where courts have to decide who is an asshole and who is, instead, just being "frank." This would only further empower the wealthy, those who can afford the legal force.

You are of course right about the inconsistency with which that beautiful principle is defended. Besides the case of the Minnesota peace activists who were investigated for terrorism, there is the whole issue opened up by the Supreme Courts Citizen United ruling last year, which conflates freedom of speech with the financial strength of corporations to buy all the microphones and drown out real people who have less money.

The Westboro case is a big, bold case that allows the Supreme Court to appear as if it is boldly defending freedom of speech; and to an extent, it is actually true. However, let this not be a distraction from the contradictory actions taken by our government, including that same Supreme Court.

Nathan said...

"there is the whole issue opened up by the Supreme Courts Citizen United ruling last year" - yep, that's another one. a big one.

Chong Go "What good is going to come from increasing other's suffering?" None, as far as I'm concerned. The Westburo folks stretch the limits of compassion for almost everyone here in the U.S. Even conservatives who might support the anti-gay message tend to be outraged at the gross disrespect being displayed for military members and their families.