The Supreme Court ruled
Wednesday that vitriolic anti-gay protests at military funerals are a form of political speech protected by the First Amendment.
Writing for the majority in an 8-1 ruling, Chief Justice John Roberts declared that the Westboro Baptist Church
, led by its founder, Fred Phelps
, could not be held liable for money damages sought by the family of a slain Marine, Lance Cpl. Matthew A. Snyder
, whose funeral was picketed by church members in 2006. Only Justice Samuel Alito, who had forcefully objected
to the protests during oral argument in the case in October, dissented from the opinion.
The court declared that the protesters' controversial signs -- on placards that read "God Hates the USA/Thank God for 9/11," "America is Doomed," "Thank God for IEDs" and "God Hates Fags," among others -- constituted lawful and peaceful commentary on political issues under First Amendment legal precedent.
Roberts wrote: "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. 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. That choice requires that we shield Westboro from tort liability for its picketing in this case."
The court ruled that the protesters stayed away from the memorial service, obeyed the constraints imposed upon them by local officials, and were barely seen by mourners as they drove to the service.
"Given that Westboro's speech was at a public place on a matter of public concern," Roberts wrote, "that speech is entitled to 'special protection' under the First Amendment" and "cannot be restricted simply because it is upsetting or arouses contempt."
The court thus affirmed a lower federal appeals court ruling that had tossed out the Snyders' lawsuit on similar grounds. Earlier, a federal trial judge had ruled in favor of the Snyder family, and against the Westboro Baptist Church.
In a strong dissent, Alito said that the court's decision allowed the Westboro church to "brutalize" the family at its most vulnerable moment. He wrote: "Our profound national commitment to free and open debate is not a license for the vicious verbal assault that occurred in this case. . . In this case, respondents brutally attacked Matthew Snyder, and this attack, which was almost certain to inflict injury, was central to respondents' well-practiced strategy for attracting public attention."
The Phelps' family, which essentially constitutes the Westboro Baptist Church, immediately praised the ruling. Margie Phelps, who acted as attorney for her family, told the Associated Press: "The only surprise is that Justice Alito did not feel compelled to follow his oath. We read the law. We follow the law. The only way for a different ruling is to shred the
In an interview with CBS Radio News after the decision was announced, Phelps said she would tell the Snyder family: "This was a fool's errand. It was un-American as anything you could have done. That boy is still dead. . . Now get down on your knees, mourn for your sins, repent and obey."