Today, the US Supreme Court ruled that the Westboro Baptist “Church” could protest at military funerals. The ruling was 8-1, with Justice Samuel Alito descending.
Chief Justice John Roberts wrote the opinion for the court, stating, “…free speech rights in the First Amendment shield the funeral protesters, noting that they obeyed police directions and were 1,000 feet from the church.”
He went on to say, “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.”
Alito strongly disagreed. “Our profound national commitment to free and open debate is not a license for the vicious verbal assault that occurred in this case,” he said.
In looking at the review of the decision, I’m reminded of the case of Larry Flynt.
In 1983, Flynt published a satirical parody ad in Hustler Magazine, where the Reverend Jerry Falwell “speaks about his first time,” and tells of a sexual encounter with his mother.
Falwell sued Flynt, Hustler magazine, and Flynt’s distribution company for libel and inflicting emotional distress. In December 1984, a jury’s found Flynt guilty of inflicting emotional distress, but not libel. The case would go all the way to the US Supreme Court in 1988.
In Hustler Magazine, Inc. v. Falwell, 485 U.S. 46 (1988), the United States Supreme Court held, in a unanimous 8-0 decision (Justice Anthony Kennedy took no part in the consideration or decision of the case), that the First Amendment’s free-speech guarantee prohibits awarding damages to public figures to compensate for emotional distress intentionally inflicted upon them.
Thus, Hustler magazine’s parody of Jerry Falwell was deemed to be within the law, because the Court found that reasonable people would not have interpreted the parody to contain factual claims, leading to a reversal of the jury verdict in favor of Falwell, who had previously been awarded $200,000 in damages by a lower court.
Let me make it clear that the Westboro Baptist “Church” is not a “Church”. In fact, the members are only a few of the pastor’s family. They pick and chose what parts of the bible to believe. They don’t follow what Jesus Christ teaches, so they certainly aren’t Christian!
However, they do have the right to peacefully protest, as long as no one is physically harming anyone. Saying that the “Church” doesn’t have to right to protest would have chilling effect on all future cases, whether it be liberal or conservative. I may not agree to what they have to say, but it is their right in accordance to the First Amendment of the United States.
But they’re still a bunch of assholes!