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WASHINGTON — The First Amendment protects hateful protests at military funerals, the Supreme Court ruled on Wednesday in an 8-1 decision.
“Speech is powerful,” Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. wrote for the majority. “It can stir people to action, move them to tears of both joy and sorrow, and — as it did here — inflict great pain.”
But under the First Amendment, he went on, “we cannot react to that pain by punishing the speaker.” Instead, the national commitment to free speech, he said, requires protection of “even hurtful speech on public issues to ensure that we do not stifle public debate.”
The case arose from a protest at the funeral of a Marine who had died in Iraq, Lance Cpl. Matthew A. Snyder. As they had at hundreds of other funerals, members of the Westboro Baptist Church of Topeka, Kan., appeared with signs bearing messages like “America is Doomed” and “God Hates Fags.”
The church contends that God is punishing the United States for its tolerance of homosexuality.
The father of the fallen Marine, Albert Snyder, sued the protesters for, among other things, intentional infliction of emotional distress, and won a substantial jury award that was later overturned by an appeals court.
Chief Justice Roberts wrote in the ruling that three factors required a ruling in favor of the church group. First, he said, its speech was on matters of public concern. While the messages on the signs carried by its members “may fall short of refined commentary,” the chief justice wrote, “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.”
Second, he wrote, the relationship between the church and the Snyders was not a private grudge.
Third, the members of the church “had the right to be where they were.” They were picketing on a public street 1,000 feet from the site of the funeral, they complied with the law and with instructions from the police, and they protested quietly and without violence.
Chief Justice Roberts suggested that the proper response to hurtful protests are general laws creating buffer zones around funerals and the like, rather than empowering of juries to punish unpopular speech.
The opinion acknowledged that “Westboro’s choice added to Mr. Snyder’s already incalculable grief” and emphasized that the ruling was narrow and limited to the kinds of protests staged by the church.
Justice Stephen G. Breyer joined the majority opinion but wrote separately to say that other sorts of speech, including television broadcasts and Internet postings, might warrant different treatment.
“In order to have a society in which public issues can be openly and vigorously debated,” he wrote, “it is not necessary to allow the brutalization of innocent victims.”
I could not see how the Supreme Court could have ruled otherwise.