Snyder v. Phelps, Part 1


Today the U.S. Supreme Court ruled– seemingly– in favor of the Westboro Baptist bigots. Judging from the explosion of comments and coverage on the web, Americans from all walks of life are shocked and outraged over the ruling. But does our Constitution allow any other outcome?

Given the modern “fast food” approach to news in which we tend to believe whatever’s served up, I read the majority opinion for myself before I started this blog entry. I love that technology allows us to read court opinions the same day they come out:

With Chief Justice John Roberts writing for the majority, eight of the nine justices agreed that this was a matter of public concern, not private, that was not specifically directed at Marine Lance Corporal Matthew Snyder or his family. They disagreed with Snyder’s father’s assertion that he should be awarded damages and that he was a captive audience at his son’s funeral.

It should be noted that Westboro Baptist Church has known for many years how to get away with what they do. In this case they did not go onto private property or into the funeral. They told the police they would be there ahead of time. They stood close by and held signs without engaging in disorderly conduct or obstructing traffic.

The Court did express sympathy for Snyder’s family and others who have suffered at the hands of Westboro. But they chose not to limit Westboro’s public expression, however craftily it was designed:

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.

Obviously our Constitution’s First Amendment and cases like Dun & Bradstreet were the laws and precedents that the Court based its decision on. Since 1791, the First Amendment has said:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

Knowing the guarantees of our Constitution and how the Court has ruled in other cases shows us that the Court didn’t necessarily base their decision on whether they liked Westboro Baptist or agreed with what they said. They ruled in favor of freedom even though freedom allows some people to do disgusting things.

I am compelled to make this distinction because it is so common for people to lash out with emotion instead of reason at times like these. There are a lot of people who cannot articulate why they disagree with someone, but they fly off into swearing, anger, and personal attacks to justify their opinions.

Such people also use stereotypes and generalizations to excess– “All conservatives are power-hungry Wall Street whores! All liberals are crack-smoking brainwashed communists!” Really? That’s the best you’ve got? Is this what you’re going to say in reaction to this ruling, that the justices are losers who must approve of Westboro Baptist Church or their message?

Instead, I would encourage people to read the ruling for themselves instead of assuming that the high court is a few tacos short of a combination plate. Now I admit that the ruling doesn’t sit comfortably with me; before I read it I wondered how Hustler v. Falwell was going to play into it.

Thankfully the lone dissenter in this case, Justice Samuel Alito– a conservative– addressed this in his opinion. I have the same question as he did– is using Hustler to support the majority opinion an apples-to-apples comparison since Falwell was a public figure and Snyder wasn’t? I’m still struggling with that issue.

Alito also said that freedom of speech shouldn’t be used to inflict personal injury, another very thought-provoking point that hearkens back to the adage, “your rights end where my nose begins.” His concluding comments were:

In order to have a society in which public issues can be openly and vigorously debated, it is not necessary to allow the brutalization of innocent victims like petitioner. I therefore respectfully dissent.

Alito made some valid points that I hope academics will expound on. As an informal crime victim advocate, I can think of many instances in which sick and twisted people terrorize their victims by exercising their rights and freedom. Asking where we draw the line is an excellent question.

The bigger picture here is this: if our Supreme Court limited Westboro’s freedom of speech under this set of conditions, that would establish a precedent that could limit others’ freedom of speech. It would open up a can of worms. In this case, irritating and stomach-turning as it is, they had to err on the side of the Constitution. The majority couldn’t have gone any other way.

So I’m continuing to sort out exactly how I feel about the majority ruling, but I know that this is what had to happen for the greater good– even if I’m questioning some of the logic. As Jean Jacques Rousseau said, “Free people, remember this maxim: we may acquire liberty, but it is never recovered if it is once lost.”


Part two is posted below.


©2011 H. Hiatt/ All articles/posts on this blog are copyrighted original material that may not be reproduced in part or whole in any electronic or printed medium without prior permission from H. Hiatt/

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