Last week the Roberts’ Court issued yet another First Amendment ruling. In an 8-1 decision, the Court held the First Amendment bars recovery for the tort of Intentional Infliction of Emotional Distress (IIED) when the offending speech concerns a matter relating to public rather than private matters. While conceding the defendants intentionally chose the funeral of plaintiff’s son to publish their views, it nevertheless held the communication within the “special protection” afforded by the First Amendment.
The Westboro Baptist Church, and its founder Fred Phelps, have picketed military funerals for the past twenty years to raise awareness of its belief that God hates the United States for its tolerance of homosexuality. They specifically target military funerals brandishing picket signs stating, “God Hates the USA/Thank God for 9-11; Thank God for Dead Soldiers; God Hates You; Don’t Pray for the USA;” and “Thank God for IEDs”. The group attended the funeral of Marine Lance Corporal Matthew Snyder who was killed in Iraq in the line of duty. They also tailored their signs to attack Lance Cpl. Snyder: “God Almighty Killed Lance Cpl. Snyder; He died in shame, not honor — for a fag nation cursed by God…Now in Hell.” (It should be noted that the Westboro Baptist Church has fewer than 100 members, almost all of whom are relatives of Rev. Phelps).
All parties agree the Church conducted its protest within the “time, place and manner restrictions” of the State of Maryland. These regulations required the demonstration to remain within a 10 by 25 foot plot located 1000 feet from the church where the funeral was held. The plaintiff, Lance Cpl. Snyder’s father, testified he was only somewhat aware of the protest on the day of the funeral, but subsequently observed significant media coverage of the event. He filed a lawsuit alleging IIED, inter alia, against Westboro Baptist and Phelps individually. A jury subsequently returned a multi-million dollar verdict in his favor.
The Supreme Court reiterated that speech “fairly considered as relating to any matter of political, social, or other concern to the community…occupies the highest rung of the hierarchy of First Amendment values” deserving special protection. The deliberately provacative context of Westboro’s protest — at the Marine’s funeral — failed to transform the nature of the speech. While certainly “outrageous”, the speech did comment on matters of public concern and therefore deserved the highest degree of protection. The Nation chose to shield hurtful speech on public issues to preserve open and free debate, and the Court overturned the verdict in Mr. Snyder’s favor.
Justice Alito was the lone dissenter. In spite of many other available venues (parks, military recruitment centers, etc.), Westboro deliberately pickets funerals “because it is expected that respondents’ verbal assaults will wound the family and friends of the deceased” while generating significant media coverage. Alito contends Westboro ceased commenting on matters of public concern when it attacked Cpl. Snyder’s religion (Roman Catholic) and his “wicked, sinful manner of life” defending the “United States of Sodom”. Alito sought to uphold the verdict based upon Westboro’s direct, unfounded attack on Cpl. Snyder which it specifically designed to induce anguish in the Snyder family.
My Two Cents
While I’m mindful of Alito’s objections, the majority got this right. Clearly Westboro sought to use Cpl. Snyder’s funeral to generate media attention to their cause. This tactic has proven remarkably effective for them; while largely ignored on a national scale, the local media invariably runs a story on these demonstrations when a small town’s “favorite son” returns home in a coffin. Even with direct assaults on the decedent’s religion and values, the larger social issues are subject of national debate. The fact that I vehemently disagree with Westboro’s positions and methods doesn’t lessen their First Amendment protections, but it proves Mr. Zappa was right once again: JESUS THINKS YOU’RE A JERK!