Snyder v. Phelps: SCOTUS Got It Right

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.

Margie Snyder at SCOTUS
Snyder’s father, Albert Snyder, sued the WBC and its pastor, Fred Phelps, on multiple torts and won the case on the Intentional Infliction of Emotional Distress tort, he was awarded $10.9 million by a jury. The Fourth Circuit overturned this decision on First Amendment grounds. Regardless of one’s emotional feelings, the Fourth Circuit got this case right.

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.Thank God For Dead Soldiers

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.
The point that Justice Alito misses is that the line which defines “brutalization of innocent victims” is very difficult to draw, as we all have differing ideas of what “brutalization” is.

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.
I do not want to be mistaken for a supporter of the WBC or the Phelps; I am a supporter of free speech. The Westboro Baptist Church is a group of hateful and evil individuals. The only people to blame for their speech, however, are ourselves. The WBC is given attention and media time like candy for their despicable speech. Much like the car crash along the highway that everybody slows down to see, the protest of the WBC gain our attention and move us to emotions. If we really want to combat their speech, we ought to stop feeding the beast with airtime, not punish free speech.
Only when we hold the rights for which Lance Corporal Matthew Snyder valiantly died protecting in such regard will we be able to truly have public debate in this country.
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