Matt Carberry (kingpin248) wrote,
Matt Carberry

On Snyder v. Phelps

Today, the Supreme Court handed down its decision in Snyder v. Phelps. By an 8-1 vote (only Alito dissenting) the Court held that the Westboro Baptist Church's practice of picketing military funerals constituted protected speech, and shielded the Church from liability for, among other charges, intentional infliction of emotional distress.

As (a) a veteran, and (b) someone who doesn't equate homosexuality with sin, I find Phelps and his ilk repulsive. Personally, I think the whole lot of them should stick to preaching to their flock in Topeka. But the Court got this absolutely right.

The key difference between the majority and the dissent is the characterization of the speech as "a matter of public concern." I agree with the Chief Justice that the overall thrust of the speech falls into that category. Having been accorded that status under the First Amendment, a tort claim that is directly tied to the content of the speech cannot stand. As the opinion notes, "A group of parishioners standing at the very spot where Westboro stood, holding signs that said 'God Bless America' and 'God Loves You,' would not have been subjected to liability. It was what Westboro said that exposed it to tort damages."

I have seen some disagreement with the ruling, including one Facebook comment characterizing Westboro's actions as "a hate crime." First of all, the controversy at issue here was a civil, not criminal, matter. And besides that, the scope of hate crimes has, even as it has expanded, has remained confined to actual crimes (i.e. murder, rape, defacement of property) aggravated by factors relating to hate. It has never encompassed speech in and of itself. I don't know how widespread this belief is, but I think its spread would not bode well for our republic. The proper response to speech such as that of Westboro is more speech, such as the response of Kevin Smith and his fans when the WBC picketed the premiere of "Red State" at Sundance. I am glad that the Supreme Court agrees and has acted to preserve a wide berth for free speech.

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