Supreme Court rules 8-1 in favor of Westboro Baptist Church over Gold Star Dad

 
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Supreme Court rules 8-1 in favor of Westboro Baptist Church over Gold Star Dad

Well, this is a bit of a heart breaker, but not altogether unexpected.  I thought it would be 6-3, but we even lost the other two I thought we might get.  As the AP tells us:

 

The Supreme Court ruled Wednesday that the First Amendment protects fundamentalist church members who mount anti-gay protests outside military funerals, despite the pain they cause grieving families.

 

The court voted 8-1 in favor of the Westboro Baptist Church of Topeka, Kan. The decision upheld an appeals court ruling that threw out a $5 million judgment to the father of a dead Marine who sued church members after they picketed his son's funeral.

Chief Justice John Roberts wrote the opinion for the court. Justice Samuel Alito dissented.

Roberts said the First Amendment shields the funeral protesters, noting that they obeyed police directions and were 1,000 feet from the church.

  I will be updating this as I go through it, but some choice passages:

Westboro’s choice to convey its views in conjunction with Matthew Snyder’s funeral made the expression of those views particularly hurtful to many, especially to Matthew’s father. The record makes clear that the applicable legal term—"emotional distress"—fails to capture fully the anguish Westboro’s choice added to Mr. Snyder’s already incalculable grief. But Westboro conducted its picketing peacefully on matters of public concern at a public place adjacent to a public street. Such space occupies a "special position in terms of First Amendment protection."

Simply put, the church members had the right to be where they were. Westboro alerted local authorities to its funeral protest and fully complied with police guidance onwhere the picketing could be staged. The picketing was conducted under police supervision some 1,000 feet from the church, out of the sight of those at the church. The protest was not unruly; there was no shouting, profanity, or violence.

 

The record confirms that any distress occasioned by Westboro’s picketing turned on the content and viewpoint of the message conveyed, rather than any interference with the funeral itself. 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.

 

Our holding today is narrow. We are required in First Amendment cases to carefully review the record, and the reach of our opinion here is limited by the particular facts before us. As we have noted, "the sensitivity and significance of the interests presented in clashes between First Amendment and [state law] rights counsel relying on limited principles that sweep no more broadly than the appropriate context of the instant case."

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 stiflepublic debate. That choice requires that we shield Westboro from tort liability for its picketing in this case.

Unsurprisingly, I tend to agree with Justice Alito's dissent,

Our profound national commitment to free and open debate is not a license for the vicious verbal assault that occurred in this case.

 

Petitioner Albert Snyder is not a public figure. He is simply a parent whose son, Marine Lance Corporal Matthew Snyder, was killed in Iraq. Mr. Snyder wanted what is surely the right of any parent who experiences such anincalculable loss: to bury his son in peace. But respondents, members of the Westboro Baptist Church, deprivedhim of that elementary right. They first issued a pressrelease and thus turned Matthew’s funeral into a tumultuous media event. They then appeared at the church,approached as closely as they could without trespassing,and launched a malevolent verbal attack on Matthew and his family at a time of acute emotional vulnerability. As a result, Albert Snyder suffered severe and lasting emotional injury.  The Court now holds that the First Amendment priotected respondents right to brutalize Mr. Snyder.  I cannot agree.

 

This Court has recognized that words may "by their veryutterance inflict injury" and that the First Amendment does not shield utterances that form "no essential part of any exposition of ideas, and are of such slight social value as a step to truth that any benefit that may be derived from them is clearly outweighed by the social interest in order and morality."   ("[P]ersonal abuse is not in any proper sense communication of information or opinion safeguarded by the Constitution"). When grave injury isintentionally inflicted by means of an attack like the one at issue here, the First Amendment should not interfere with recovery.

…it is abundantly clear that respondents, going far beyond commentary on matters of public concern, specifically attacked Matthew Snyder because (1) he was a Catholic and (2) he was a member of the United States military. Both Matthew and petitioner were private figures, and this attack  was not speech on a matter of public concern.  While commentary on the Catholic Church or the United States military constitutes speech on matters of public concern, speech regarding Matthew Snyder’s purely private conduct does not.

Finally:

Respondents’ outrageous conduct caused petitionergreat injury, and the Court now compounds that injury bydepriving petitioner of a judgment that acknowledges thewrong he suffered. In order to have a society in which public issues can beopenly and vigorously debated, it is not necessary to allow the brutalization of innocent victims like petitioner. I therefore respectfully dissent.

My thoughts on this pretty much mirror the dissent, but nonetheless…

As I noted above, the Court first addressed the “message” of the signs, and determined it was a matter of public concern, and not a private one. However, I am not entirely certain I buy that. Clearly their choice of venue was selected to create a scene. Certainly there are many available parks they could have used for this protest. In the dissent, Alito notes:

On the morning of Matthew Snyder’s funeral, respondents could have chosen to stage their protest at countless locations. They could have picketed the United States Capitol, the White House, the Supreme Court, the Pentagon, or any of the more than 5,600 military recruiting stations in this country. They could have returned to the Maryland State House or the United States Naval Academy, where they had been the day before. They could have selected any public road where pedestrians are allowed. (There are more than 4,000,000 miles of public roads in the United States.2) They could have staged their protest in a public park. (There are more than 20,000 public parks in this country.3) They could have chosen any Catholic church where no funeral was taking place.(There are nearly 19,000 Catholic churches in the United States.4) But of course, a small group picketing at any of these locations would have probably gone unnoticed.

Now, taken as a whole, I suppose the signs do touch on a public concern, although it is one I can’t fathom. However, look at some individual signs. Again, from Alito:

Even if those who attended the funeral were not alerted in advance about respondents’ intentions, the meaning of these signs would not have been missed. Since respondents chose to stage their protest at Matthew Snyder’s funeral and not at any of the other countless available venues, a reasonable person would have assumed that there was a connection between the messages on the placards and the deceased.

Moreover, since a church funeral is an event that naturally brings to mind thoughts about the afterlife, some of respondents’ signs—e.g., “God Hates You,” “Not Blessed Just Cursed,” and “You’re Going to Hell”—would have likely been interpreted as referring to God’s judgment of the deceased. Other signs would most naturally have been understood as suggesting—falsely—that Matthew was gay. Homosexuality was the theme of many of the signs. There were signs reading “God Hates Fags,” “Semper Fi Fags,” “Fags Doom Nations,” and “Fag Troops.” Id., at 3781–3787. Another placard depicted two men engaging in anal intercourse. A reasonable bystander seeing those signs would have likely concluded that they were meant to suggest that the deceased was a homosexual.

I think this argument is borne out by the fact that numerous commenters on a previous post asked if Matthew was in fact gay. He was not. If “You’re Going to Hell” was not a reference to Matthew, what public concern was it aimed at? Who is the “You” if not Matthew or his family?

Further, look at the “Epic” of Matthew that came out just after the funeral. Again, assuming that the protest itself was to address a matter of public concern, then what context does the “epic” place on such. For instance, that epic states that:

God blessed you, Mr. and Mrs. Snyder, with a resource and his name was Matthew. He was an arrow in your quiver! In thanks to God for the comfort the child could bring you, you had a DUTY to prepare that child to serve the LORD his GOD—PERIOD! You did JUST THE OPPOSITE—you raised him for the devil.

Assuming the factual validity of their statement, that the Snyders “raised him for the devil”, which I don’t think anyone would agree with, but assuming it is true, how exactly would that be an issue of public concern?

But, it is what it is. Of the possible avenues one has to immunize themselves from the Westboro Baptist Church, Intentional Infliction of Emotional Distress is not one of them. Thankfully the court did not invalidate the Time, Manner, Place restrictions that the states have enacted to keep these guys away from the funerals, hopefully that will be enough.

Posted in the burner | 202 comments
 
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Comments

It is now past time to begin picketting this so-called church and return their vitriol at each and every meeting they hold, at every funeral service they hold, and every other event held by this cult.

Robert, I would agree with your intent, and even to quiet picketing at their meetings and/or other events. I cannot agree that we should lower ourselves to their level with picketing at their funeral services. Respect for the dead and their loved ones, in my opinion, should never be subjected to public denigration.

Patricia, I disagree with you. The exercise of a 1st ammendment right to demonstrate at their funerals and meetings is long over due.

Patricia, normally your argument makes good sense but this cult isn't normal. In fact, this cult appears to be on a level with Jim Jones' cult sans the Kool-Aid. That is if any of them are actually human in the first place. However, the highest court in the land has proclaimed it is our 1st Amendment Right to picket funerals as vulgarly as we choose. While I know having a right to do something doesn't automatically convert to "its the right thing to do" I believe in the case of this CULT an exception to this truism could (should) be considered, if for no other reason than to demonstrate to them just how it feels to have a dead loved one publicly and vocally despised.

Good start Robert. But the most appropriate and powerful action, sould be at the
funeral services of all judges that voted for the "Rights" to desecrate a solemn service.
We would see how much the "Court" would uphold our "Right" do same too them!

Now there you go. However, the judges actually did their jobs this time and upheld long standing law. As I saw pointed out elsewhere upholding the law isn't always the correct thing to do; if it were the USSC would never have upheld slave owner's property rights. Therefore, while I am in favor of picketing anyone of the EIGHT's funeral I do believe it should be done quietly with signs proclaiming, "Goodbye and Good Riddance" and nothing more.

These judges did not do their job, they failed our Military, Military Families, the American people!
While our Military sacrifices themselves, their families to PROTECT this country, these judges, this government will not "EVEN PROTECT THEIR BURIALS OR THEIR GRIEVING FAMILIES"!
It was not about freedom of speech, it was all about protecting their burials. Our Troops needless to say deserve an HONORABLE BURIAL but thanks to these sorry outfits, for some it will not be possible, and their hurting families will only be afflicted more!
Make no mistake one day they will give an account!

Actually, these judges DID do their job. Their decision did not match the thoughts and feelings of the majority of us. So for THAT reason we say they did not do their job? That's like saying you either agree with ME or you're wrong. Personally I agree with Robert, give them a taste of their own medicine and see how they like it then. You'd do the same thing to any other bully. And that's exactly what this so called church really is. They're just hiding behind claiming to be a church. Even " Satanic " churches don't do garbage like this.

I agree. The judges did do their job, but at the same time, they could have changed this. We have our freedom of speech but that doesn't mean we can say whatever we want. The First Amendment was changed by a Supreme Court case that limited "fight words." I cannot say something that will knowingly cause violence. They could have made it so that a funeral cannot be protested. This would be every funeral, not just military. These people are not discriminating against just the military. They protested Ronnie James Dio's funeral because they said he worshiped the devil. I agree that the judges did their job. My political science professor said it best. "We have to be an extremely tolerant nation to support any sort of freedom of speech."

I am a Gold Star Father as well as a Retired LTC with over 30 years in the Infantry. We service members take an Oath of Office; I, RWIce, do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; that I take this obligation freely, without any mental reservation or purpose of evasion; and that I will well and faithfully discharge the duties of the office on which I am about to enter. So help me God.
The First Amendment gives this knuckelheads the right to assemble. I took and oath to defend all of the Constitution regardless of my personal views. My FRIENDS helped me to bury my son, and to shield my family and I from these despicable people. They are not CHRISTIAN. I can say this because the Bible is very clear about the actions Christians will take. These are not Christian actions. They will be held accountable for their actions on day.
GOD Bless the USA and every Veteran and service member.

Robert: they're not really a "Church". They are essentially one family of insensitive whackos.

Well, I did say so-called and ended with cult. ;-)

I completely believe in the 1st Amendment, but I also believe that Judge Alito's lone "nay" and more importantly his written opionion outweighed the judgement of the other 8. That said, I belong to Patriot Riders (mostly Veterans) and, when requested by family, we gather 100-300 bikers all with full-size American flags and poles and line the route to the burial site for a fallen serviceman. This has totally deterred this same group of mostly relatives (within this so-called church) from pulling anything like they did at Matthew's burial. Everyone is entitled to their opinion and they were supposedly 1,000+ feet from the service and could not be seen by anyone and I will fight to defend their right to do so, but at some point, some common sense needs to come into play. These people may be Christians, but they certainly ARE NOT AMERICANS!

I'

Yes, I don't even think they are christian. Only a worshiper of the angel of darkness, would do something lijke this.

No need to think about it Warren they are not!!!!

They are Americans, protected. This is not, however; a Christian attitude. "Be ye wise as serpents and harmless as doves." I'm pretty sure that's how it is written. This is harmful and unwise. If we are truly 'cursed' as they say, why can't they "Let the dead bury the dead" like the scripture says? This is harrassment at its core. Nothing more, nothing less. We should pity them for their lack of wisdom and detrimental effects upon society.

Just burn their damned Topeka Kansas church to the ground... ungrateful POS. They want to protest gays go to San Francisco and protest all day long.

that so called church has over steped its boundry and they should be taxed by the fedral goverment,what has happened to the soilders right if he or she is good enough to serve our country then they tottally desirve allthe respect ,i say that all of supreme court should be fired immediatly!

I believe all non-gay, church funeral should picketed.

I agree with you sir.

OK, then let all military fols & veterans picket every funeral & service held by this so called church!

If the Supreme Court feels it is "ACCEPTABLE" for "brainless christians" to bouycott Military/Veterans funerals, what will they say when VETERANS & Active Military members BLOCKADE these "idiots" from such Funerals??? It's about time members of The American Legion, and its affilates, get together with ALL other Veterans organizations to BLOCK these "so-called christians" from their disrepect of those that GAVE THEIR LIVES FOR OUR FREEDOMS! Please remember, Freedom is NOT Free! Some Gave ALL for this Freedom others want to disrespect in the name of "church rights"... Yes, as a Chaplain for Posts/District of The American Legion, and being an ordained minister, I respect religious rights, but what these "people" are doing is NOT respectful or in anyway CHRISTIAN! (These are my opinions and not necessarily those of all Leionnaires or other Chaplains...)

I wonder what those Idiot's are smoking? Or how they sleep at night.They seem to forget that our troops are giving their lives so these idiots have the freedom that they have. Sounds more like something on Satan's agenda. We have an all loving and careing God. And time for me to stop.

Okay so Westboro Baptist Church has the right to protest at funerals then we also have the right to protest them for being so vile in towns where they live. As a protest against them all private businesses should show their disgust of members of this "church" by refusing to have them as customers. Maybe this church will disappear if they can't eat.

What ever happened to common decency and common sense. It sure does not reside in 8 of 9 Supreme Court Justices! It is time to recall these idiots and throw them out on their ear. I am neither political or religious but this makes me as mad as I have been since Jane Fonda showed her stupidity during Viet Nam. How do we remove these supreme dummies from office? Our military personel, alive or dead, should be shown the utmost respect from the ones of us not doing the fighting and dying. All members of the Supreme Court, Congress and the President should represent the majority in this country and their beliefs, not some handful of morons out to promote their perverted vision of right and wrong.

I wouldn't go "clearing the bench" while Obama still sits in the Oval Office...

I think a trusty, Louisville Slugger would come in handy. There is a group of Veterans who show up at these funerals to protect the dignity of the soldier. Who are they so I can join!

One way these WBC cultists make money is by suing people. No matter how satisfying it might be to physically assault them, you'd probably regret it when they sue the pants of you, never mind the prospect of going to jail because of them...

Dead people can't sue you. Just sayin.

Bob -
They are the Patriot Guard Riders and you are welcome to join. < http://www.patriotguard.org/ >

YOu are talking about the Patriot Guard. All they do is voluntary and all that is needed is to look them up on the internet, they are headquartered in Albuquerque, NM. They are made up mostly of Veterans and their families and they protect the family from idots like these. I am Baptist but you know what, they are causing me to qoestion that. I was always taught that the church was supposed to atract sinners and lead them to salvation, not cheer and say they hope you go to hell. They are not achurch or Baptist. They are a CULT and should be treated that way. My heart goes out to the family. I AM a member of the Patriot Guard and have 25 years Active Duty Army. When the loss happens in your family, then and only then do you know how bad this church really is. God BLess MAtthew

Thou the Bat thing sounds apealing we are called legion riders and a few other groups that ride and create a "buffer zone" if you will. Most Ride motorcycles but it is ot a pre-requisite to ride, only to be a Vet and care.

The ruling upsets me also, but if we are to have freedom speech, I personally don't think we can pick and choose what is right or wrong. As a member of the Patriot Guard Riders, I received an email from them yesterday and they too were disappointed, but understand also. Their mission statement will not change. We will be there as buffers between these idiots and the grieving familes.
As far as picketing their so called 'church'. Would that not put us on their level? The church is made up of the in-bred Phelps family and who are lawyers. I would rather take the high road, as they will get theirs in the end.
As a Baptist, it saddens me that they use their religion as an excuse for their behavior.

USAF SSGT 69-73

I agree with you SSGT. Until our government abolished having gays in the military, these protests are going to happen. But, they should not be done at a funeral. These soldiers are the ones protecting the rights that these idiots are exploiting, along with countless other civilians. Our military personnel deserves the utmost respect, more so than anyone else. If they want to picket, they need to do so where the decisions are made, ie congress. It is sad to see that our citizens still will not stand behind those that die for their freedoms. Vietnam all over again..

NEWS FLASH, WORLD -- Would you all PLEASE start ignoring these SSOB's?!?!? The more attention they receive, the more they will continue their message of "hate & discontent"!!! They would have probably disappeared a long time ago, had they not received so much attention from the media!

They are looking for exposure and publicity and they always get it. The ideal situation would be for them to be ignored in every venue where they appear. It's really hard when people are being that hurtful though. Their message is truly vile. As a Veteran and as a Christian I find it offensive to the very core of my being. The Veteran in me wants to confront them and ask them if this is the kind of respect someone who died for their freedom deserves. The Christian in me wants to ask them about what happened to "Judge not lest ye be judged".

If these people have the right to their free speech, then others also have the right to shun the members of this group. Local people and businesses also have the right to refuse servicing them. Boycott the group, it's members and any supporters. The local community should spurn this group.

Bob, though I understand your anger and disgust, the Louisville Slugger is not the way to go.
The group you refer to is the Patriot Guard Riders (PGR) and they do one OUTSTANDING job at funerals. In my neck of the woods, Ohio (Pa,Wva,Ky,In) we have top-notch orgnaizations that do not fail thier missions! Join up and stand by our fallen hero's.

Although it is hard to accept this decision the Supreme Court did what they are supposed to do and upheld the first amendment rights of this group. I am a firm believer of what goes around comes around and eventually the suffering they have caused will return to them in some form.

The American Legion Riders (must be a veteran, wife of a veteran, or son of a veteran to join), the Patriot Guard Riders (anyone can join this group) and several other groups send out messages via email, websites, and the like to meet at a designated location and ride either on a motorcycle or other vehicles to ride with the family of the fallen warrior to shield them from protestors. The American Legion and the Patriot Guard Riders both have websites for further information.
I believe the Westboro church is also the one that was planning on publicly burned the Qu'ran. They are promoting hate under the guise of religion. All of us should not give them the time of day for their rantings. However, they do have the freedom of speech, no matter how hateful it is. Just remember, we also the same right to peacefully assemble and protest them! It must be peaceful.
Jesus promoted peace, understanding, and loving your neighbor. He did get angry when they desecrated his father's house (the temple). The Westboro Church should use that example. In other words, what would Jesus do? I believe he would mourn the loss of a soul and mourn with the family, not protest them.

These "individuals" do not have the "Right" to Protest against any Military Funeral. The diseased spilt his own Blood so we could enjoy the Freedoms we have in the Country. The Idiots Judges of the “Supreme Court” do not understand the price of Freedom, nor have they stood the watch of a Untied States Marine. How would Private Snyder feel if he were alive at his own Funeral? The Baptist need to go back to Church and Read their Bible!!! There they will find that Soldiers are Ordained of God. Not everyone is given the courage to fight for our Freedom. The second passage this “Church of Satan” Needs to read is: John 10:11 "I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. John 15:13 Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends. Greater love hath ... - No higher expression of love could be given. Life is the most valuable object we possess; and when a man is willing to lay that down for his friends or his country, it shows the utmost extent of love. Even this love for friends has been rarely witnessed. A very few cases like that of Damon and Pythias have occurred where a man was willing to save the life of his friend by giving his own. It greatly enhances the love of Christ, that while the instances of those who have been willing to die for friends have been so rare, he was willing to die for enemies - bitter foes, who rejected his reign, persecuted him, reviled him, scorned him, and sought his life, 1 John 4:10; Romans 5:6, Romans 5:10. It also shows us the extent of his love that he gave himself up, not to common sufferings, but to the most bitter, painful, and protracted sorrows, not for himself, not for friends, but for a thoughtless and unbelieving world. "O Lamb of God, was ever pain was ever love like thine!" The Protesters and the “Supreme Court Justices” Need to Man the Gate; Pick up a weapon and defend the Gate, neither the Protesters nor the “Supreme Court Justices” know the pain of sacrifice or service to this country nor the taste of death in battle. A famous man, once said, “You can distinguish a particular Nations Moral fortitude by the way they Honor their fallen Dead”. The “Supreme Court DID not protect the rights of Private Snyder, United States Marine Corps!!!!

Any snipers out there?

PERSONALLY, i WOULD LOVE TO TELL EACH & EVERYONE OF THOSE PHELP-BAPTIST FOLLOWERS TO; GO TO HELL, DO N OT COLLECT ANYTHING, BUT GO STRAIGHT TO HELL, AS THEY ARE NOT OF THE TRUE CHRISTIAN FAITH. THEY SHOULD ALL BE DEPORTED TO COMMUNIST CHINA. IF THEY SHOULD EVER SHOW UP AT ONE OF MY FRIENDS FUNERAL, I'D SPIT IN THEIR FACES & TELL THEM WHAT A PIECE OF SHIT THEY ARE!

The American Legion is many millions of times larger than this dinky cult church. In the face of such public disrespect of American servicemen the Legion must organize itself with a determination to protect our funerals. Every funeral this church can target with a few dozen protesters the Legion can organize hundreds to thousands of our own protesters to carry signs and stand in front of these people. In short, united we can make them disappear into the distant background of life where they deserve to be. Will the Legion stand up united against this disgrace? I sure hope so. I will certainly volunteer to be there for my fellow servicemen.

Free speech who gets to decide? Nobody hates what they stand for more than me. They tried to protest a local funeral in Laplata, MD and due to an over whelming turnout were unable to. A few wing nuts all from the same family don't give them the time of day are ruin the Constitution over them.

When decency, and respect is absent, stupidity, and ignorance fills the space. God would be shaking his head as he holds his fallen child to his heart looking at men whom he created professing their actions in his name, desecrating the very basic of love for each other with simple minded actions.
God doesnt want his children to die in wars nor does he give special permission to any man to interpret the loss of a life as just or unjust. It really comes down to One persons rights end where anothers nose, eyes, and ears begin. This family DOES indeed have a right to pay respects to their fallen child, free of the influx of stupid idealistic morons from a church professing to be of God. God must be shaking his head in disgust at the action called in his name. This family is entitled to the due course they deserve and matters set right.

The people of the Westboro Baptist Church are a bunch of sick puppies. We need to be sure that motorcycle gangs escort the American Heros and if someone shows up from the Westboro Baptist Church that they all get their butts kicked and their faces flattened.

Well the Supreme Court was correct in their ruling, that said I am sure there are many other ways to stop these idiots from protesting Military Funerals. Several people have set up blockades to stop them in many locations this year.

Rallies should be set up directly next to this group and peacefully hold signs that state: "God hates the Westboro Bapstist Church" and "Thank God for Dead Westboro Church members". Everything they say and do should be replicated slamming them right back. After all ...it is protected under the First Amendment.

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News from the World of Military and Veterans Issues. Iraq and A-Stan in parenthesis reflects that the author is currently deployed to that theater.