Last October, iCitizenForum asked “Is Free Speech too costly when it hurts others?” and wondered whether the First Amendment protected Kansas’ homophobic Westboro Baptist Church from liability for its intentionally outrageous and unwelcome demonstrations at the funerals of fallen servicemen and servicewomen. That could colorably be among the civil offenses lawyers call “torts.”
To put a finer point on it, the question making its way up the ladder of the federal judiciary was whether the church must pay $5 million in damages, as a North Carolina court had ruled, for the emotional distress it unarguably inflicted on the father of a dead corporal when Westboro’s congregants picketed a mortuary—as it had others across the country—with signs that said, in effect, a righteous god contrived to kill those soldiers because, in the United States, it is legal to be gay.
Noting, “The Constitution does not allow the prior restraint of expression,” we inquired, “Will it permit, as it does in the cases of libel and invasion of privacy, the collection of damages for harm that expression may cause?”
The Supreme Court of the United States, the top rung of our legal system, voted eight-to-one Tuesday in the negative. The majority opinion, written by Chief Justice John Roberts, concluded:
“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 . . . It is so ordered.”
Do you agree with the court?
- The case is Snyder v. Phelps et al. The text is available at http://www.supremecourt.gov/opinions/10pdf/09-751.pdf
- See October’s post at http://www.icitizenforum.com/discussion-topics/supreme-court/free-speech/…