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In a ruling today from the Supreme Court came this reference to the First Amendment - this nation has chosen to protect even hurtful speech on public issues. The hurtful speech in question came from protesters at military funerals. Today, the Supreme Court ruled they cannot be sued for inflicting emotional distress on the family of a dead soldier.
NPR's Nina Totenberg reports. And we should warn you, this story contains language that listeners may find offensive.
NINA TOTENBERG: When Lance Corporal Matthew Snyder was killed in Iraq, his funeral in Westminster, Maryland, drew thousands to pay their respects. But it also drew a protest from Pastor Fred Phelps and six other members of the Westboro Baptist Church based in Topeka, Kansas.
Phelps and other church members have traveled the country for years picketing at hundreds of military funerals to communicate their belief that God hates the United States for its tolerance of homosexuality, particularly in the military. The picketers did not contend that Corporal Snyder was gay, rather, as Pastor Phelps put it...
Mr. FRED PHELPS (Pastor, Westboro Baptist Church): When the whole country is given over to sodomy and to sodomite enablers, this country needs this preaching. And what's the purpose of it, you say? Because the lord God told us to do it.
TOTENBERG: The picketers followed their usual practice at the Snyder funeral. They alerted police and followed instructions to set up their protest on public property 1,000 feet away from the church near the vehicle entrance. Though the protest was peaceful and ended before the funeral began, the picketers carried signs with messages offensive to many. Messages like: thank God for dead soldiers. Fags doom nations. And, America is doomed.
Albert Snyder, the father of the dead soldier, did not see the signs until later when he viewed TV coverage. But he says the picketers turned his son's funeral into a circus.
Mr. ALBERT SNYDER: This was a funeral. I shouldn't have to look away from anything at my own child's funeral.
TOTENBERG: He sued Pastor Phelps and his church for intentional infliction of emotional distress.
Mr. SNYDER: These people targeted me and my family. I want to know how you would feel if somebody stood 30 feet away from the main vehicle entrance of a church when you're trying to bury your mother with a sign that says, thank God for dead sluts. You tell me that shouldn't be illegal. Is fag any worse than slut? You tell me that somebody has the right to do that.
TOTENBERG: A jury agreed with Snyder and awarded him $5 million in damages. But today, the U.S. Supreme Court set aside that verdict by an 8-to-1 vote. Writing for the court majority, Chief Justice John Roberts said that as repugnant as many of the signs were to many people, they were still plainly related to public rather than private matters. The signs focused on issues of moral and political conduct in the United States.
Westboro may have chosen to protest the funeral to gain publicity for his views, said the chief justice, and those views may be particularly hurtful to the dead soldier's father but that does not mean the church members' right of free speech can be curtailed or punished. And punishment is what a jury award is, he noted, when it imposes a penalty for expressing a viewpoint that is unpopular.
Speech is powerful, said the chief justice. It can move people to action, to tears of joy and sorrow as it did here, and inflict great pain. But we cannot react to that pain by punishing the speaker, he said. 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.
Reaction to the decision was markedly muted, given the outrage voiced by veterans groups and politicians at the time the case was argued in the court. The Democratic and Republican leaders of the Senate and 40 other members of Congress filed a brief on Snyder's side. But, today, reaction on Capitol Hill was nowhere to be found except in a couple of written statements.
Lawyer Gene Schaerr, who filed a brief in the case for the American Legion, said he was heartened by the fact that the court specifically mentioned that 43 states have enacted laws that put a buffer zone of 100 feet or more around funeral sites. That would not have affected the protest in this case, since protesters were 1,000 feet away. Nonetheless, say, Schaerr...
Mr. GENE SCHAERR (Attorney): It I think sends a clear signal to the lower courts that they should not interpret anything in this opinion as casting any doubt on any of those statutes.
TOTENBERG: Today's 8-to-1 ruling may have surprised some people, but not First Amendment scholars, whether right or left. They note that today's ruling falls right in line with others protecting the rights of fringe groups, from Nazis marching in Skokie to flag burners at a Republican convention.
University of Chicago law professor, Geoffrey Stone, notes today's case is in the tradition of protecting speech that often enrages.
Professor GEOFFREY STONE (Law, University of Chicago): This case is a classic example of it. The real surprise is Justice Alito.
TOTENBERG: Alito was the lone dissenter. He viewed the protesters' speech as targeted at a private person, the father of the dead soldier. In order to have a society in which public issues can be openly and vigorously debated, Alito said, it is not necessary to allow the brutalization of innocent victims.
Nina Totenberg, NPR News, Washington.
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