The United States Supreme Court, in an 8-1 decision, ruled in favor of Westboro Baptist Church’s rights of free speech overturning a lawsuit against the church brought by Albert Snyder for emotional distress brought on by their protests at military funerals. Snyder sued the fundamentalist church after its members picketed his son’s funeral, initially winning a $5 Million decision in a lower court.
The Westboro Baptist Church organizes protests around the nation at military funerals, with people, including children, carrying signs and placards that are anti-gay, anti-American and hateful, to say the least.
While the Court’s decision upholds the rights granted in the Bill of Rights to freedom of speech, one must question whether the court’s decision will not go down in history as it’s lowest point.
Protests are held not only at US military funerals, but at other funerals, particularly those of well known people, gay victims of AIDS or bias-crimes, at other religious institutions and even on the steps of the US Capitol. In 1998, they famously protested the funeral of Matthew Shepard, who died as a result of a vicious gay-bashing.
More recently, they protested at the funeral of Elizabeth Edwards, who died of cancer, and was the ex-wife of former US Senator John Edwards. In a stunning example of intolerance and poor taste, the church said:
God hates Elizabeth Edwards. Flee her example.
Counter protests were launched against the group in Tucson, Arizona when the group planned protests at the funeral of Christina Greene, aged 9, a victim of the now infamous shooting that resulted in several deaths and the near-fatal injury to Congresswoman Gabbie Giffords.
The Reverand Fred Phelps, who runs the Westboro Baptist Church has been organizing such protests for years, with a largely anti-homosexual theme, but also protesting against Catholics, Jews, the United States government, members of Congress, and the President of the United States. Protests have been mounted at theatres, as dens of homosexual activity, even if the play has no such theme. Their actions are clearly intended to garner media attention to themselves by outrageous and outlandish statements and actions.
Justice Samuel Alito was the sole dissenter, stating:
I fail to see why actionable speech should be immunized simply because it is interspersed with speech that is protected. The First Amendment allows recovery for defamatory statements that are interspersed with nondefamatory statements on matters of public concern, and there is no good reason why respondents’ attack on Matthew Snyder and his family should be treated differently.
The Supreme Court ruled Tuesday that the right to free speech protects Phelps and his church members to express their opinions during military and other high-profile funerals.
We raise the question whether the expression of free speech should be expressed in a way that is intentionally harmful to others, and whether those harmed by free speech have a right to sue for damages done by the exercise of free speech. While it is within the rights of anyone to express their opinion, if that expression causes harm, are not the victims of such harmful statements entitled to seek civil action to either stop or be recompensed for the damages done?
The Supreme Court’s decision may have serious consequences in the broader spectrum of American society. It effectively says that someone who is harmed by the words or actions of others by some form of communication have no rights. Essentially, this decision may be used in cases of slander and libel, setting a new standard.
If a newspaper or media outlet were to report, falsely, that someone is a criminal, for example, under this decision, that person would lose a suit brought against the media outlet on the basis that the communication was an expression of opinion, and therefore falls under freedom of speech.
Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, in an earlier court, pointed out that the freedom of speech does not include the right to yell “Fire” in a theatre, causing panic. But this decision overturns that, providing anyone with an opinion the right to express any statement, true or false, irrespective of the consequences or damages such statements may cause, from being sued or prosecuted.
The traditional media in this country have for a long time, endeavored to ensure that the statements published by them are factual, but this decision could provide all media companies with the right to publish any opinion or false statement, knowing they will be doing so as freedom of speech and therefore exempted from prosecution
Justice Alito cited that Westboro Baptist Church has other tools at its disposal for the dissemination of their message such as newsletters, websites, emails and books or articles. Instead, Phelps and his group “launched a malevolent verbal attack on Matthew [Snyder] and his family at a time of acute emotional vulnerability”.
Will Congress or President Obama react to this court decision or let it stand? The President could issue an executive order keeping protesters back a specific distance from all military funerals. The Arizona legislature in an emergency measure after the Tuscon shootings did just that, compelling that all protests be 300 feet away from the funeral. Congress could make it a crime to protest at military funerals.
The Secretary of Defense could order armed military personnel to create a barrier between protesters and the funeral, keeping a significant distance between the two. The IRS could remove the church and non-profit tax status of Phelps’ church, and investigate their fund-raising activities.
However, the greatest solution would be for the media to stop providing coverage of Phelps and his followers. If they didn’t get a column inch or a moment’s worth of television coverage, their purpose would simply go away, as should those protests.
Congress must also act to clarify that decision and enact laws protecting the rights of victims of harmful speech, upholding and reinforcing libel and slander statutes.
While we defend the rights of anyone to express a valid opinion, but to express nothing but hatred and cause harm to others is, in the opinion of The Institute, subject to civil suit for damages. Those harmed have as much right to the pursuit of happiness as protesters have of free speech.
Read the full Supreme Court decisions here.