The Supreme Court, Westboro, and You

by Melissa Brunner

What to do when a principle our nation holds dear is used to protect actions which most would deem reprehensible? Such was the case today, when the U.S. Supreme Court issued an 8-1 decision saying the funeral protests of Westboro Baptist Church are protected by the First Amendment.

In their ruling, the Justices acknowledged that Westboro chose the funeral venue to gain publicity for its message, however, the church members held their demonstration on public property, complying with restrictions set by local authorities. While people attending the funeral of Marine Corp. Mathew Snyder may have found the actions personally disturbing, the Court ruled the protesters did not disrupt the funeral itself.

Further, the Court's ruling says, signs reading "God Bless America" and "God Loves You" would not raise the same concern if they were displayed at the same time, in the same place. "Such speech cannot be restricted simply because it is upsetting or arouses contempt," the Court said. As for the Snyder's argument that the protests were a personal attack on their family, the Court's majority disagreed, saying the overall thrust of their signs and comments spoke to broader public issues, such as the war in Iraq and homosexuality.

"Because this Nation has chosen to protect even hurtful speech on public issues to ensure that public debate is not stifled," the Court wrote, "Westboro must be shielded from tort liability for its picketing in this case."

Justice Alito was the long dissenting vote on the case. His counter-opinion says there is plenty of evidence that Westboro protesters were specifically targeting the Snyder family, not merely speaking on broad public opinion. He cites online postings and news releases issued by the church. "Our profound national commitment to free and open debate is not a license for the vicious verbal assault that occurred in this case," Justice Alito wrote.

Where do you fall? Do you agree with the majority, who remind us that freedom of speech means tolerating all points of view, even those with which we cannot possibly find common ground? Or do you agree with Justice Alito, who reminds us that freedom of speech must have its limits? I believe most people would agree, to some extent, with both sides. So where do we find the middle ground? Some people might find signs used and comments made by either side of the abortion debate upsetting - do we restrict those? How about if someone used an image of a noose around an opposing sports team's mascot - should such a violent image be restricted?

There is a lot of gray area. Justice Alito believes we should wade a little further into it, but the majority of the Court says not so fast.

If you'd like to read the complete decision, you can find it here:   

http://www.supremecourt.gov/opinions/10pdf/09-751.pdf

 

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