The father of a dead US Marine sued the Westboro Baptist Church, and the US Supreme Court ruled in favour of the latter, saying that the free speech provision in the US Constitution allows the church the right to picket military funerals. (photo, from bbcimg.co.uk)
The court upheld a ruling throwing out a $5m judgment to the father.
In opinion for the court, Chief Justice John Roberts wrote : “What Westboro said, in the whole context of how and where it chose to say it, is entitled to ‘special protection’ under the First Amendment, and that protection cannot be overcome by a jury finding that the picketing was outrageous.”
Reverend Fred Phelps led Church members who have picketed outside numerous military funerals. Their aim is to draw attention to their view that US military deaths in Iraq and Afghanistan are punishment for the immorality of Americans, such as tolerance of homosexuality and abortion.
“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,” the justices said on Wednesday.
Justice Samuel Alito was the only dissenting judge and in court papers he said the Supreme Court compounded the injury by throwing out the judgement.
“In order to have a society in which public issues can be openly and vigorously debated, it is not necessary to allow the brutalisation of innocent victims like petitioner. I therefore respectfully dissent,” he wrote.
The case “put a megaphone to the mouth of this little church”, said Margie Phelps, Mr Phelps’s daughter and the lawyer representing the church, after the ruling.
“We read the law. We follow the law. The only way for a different ruling is to shred the First Amendment,” she added.
Killed in a humvee accident in Iraq in 2006, Lance Cpl Matthew Snyder’s body was returned to the US state of Maryland for burial. Members of the Westboro Baptist Church picketed his funeral.
The funeral procession was forced to alter its route because the protesters marched outside with signs that read “Thank God for Dead Soldiers”, “You’re Going to Hell” and “God Hates the USA/Thank God for 9/11”.
Soon after the funeral, Albert Snyder, Matthew’s father, discovered a poem attacking his son’s upbringing on Westboro Baptist Church’s website.
In March 2006, he filed a lawsuit accusing the church of intentionally inflicting emotional distress.
In 2007 he won $11m at trial, which was later reduced by a judge to $5m.
Although Mr Snyder argued in the past that the case was not about free speech but rather about how the church, based in Topeka, in the state of Kansas, harassed him, a federal appeals court in Virginia threw out the judgement, arguing that the Constitution shielded the church members from liability.