The Supreme Court Of The United States ought to be commended for its recent decision in Snyder v. Phelps, more commonly known as the “God Hates Fags” case. The Court affirmed the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals decision that, though distasteful, the Westboro Baptist Church (WBC) has the right to protest the funeral of Lance Corporal Matthew Snyder. Snyder died for his country in Iraq on March 3, 2006.
The Westboro Baptist Church is a group of evil individuals devoted to a message of hatred and bigotry (though they will deny this fact, saying that they are simply spreading “God’s message”), but their speech is still protected by the Constitution. Phelps and his congregation had followed all “time, place, and manner” restrictions imposed on their protest by the State of Maryland, were 1000 feet away from the Church of the funeral and were hidden behind trees. Albert Snyder himself admitted that he had not actually seen the protesters, but had only seen them on the news after he had returned home.
Though this case may have seemed controversial, due to the emotional aspect at play, it is in fact very cut and dry. The First Amendment does protect speech that we find reprehensible. It is true that states may regulate speech under “time, place, and manner restrictions,” but the WBC followed all of these regulations strictly. It is also true that individuals may sue over highly offensive or false speech, but the WBC did not actually confront Albert Snyder and his family, nor did they allege any provably false facts.
Justice Alito, the lone dissenter in this case, makes a very compelling emotional appeal in his opinion and closes in an elegant fashion, noting:
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 [Snyder]. I therefore respectfully dissent.
Chief Justice Roberts, in his opinion for the Court, notes the importance of the “American way” of free speech, which is, of course, free speech. “Speech is powerful,” the Chief Justice notes:
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.