Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Supreme Court decides Snyder v Phelps: Right to protest at funerals is protected by the First Amendment

The Supreme Court announced today its decision in Snyder v Phelps. This is the case that asked whether the First Amendment allows the family of an American soldier, killed in Iraq, to recover damages for intrusion and intentional infliction of emotional distress from the Westboro Baptist Church. Members of the Church routinely demonstrate at funerals and other events to promote their message that God is punishing the United States for its acceptance of homosexuality using their now well known slogan "Thank God for Dead Soldiers." Snyder sued for intentional infliction of emotional distress and ultimately was awarded $5 million in damages. But a federal appeals court overturned the judgment on First Amendment grounds, saying the Constitution protected Westboro’s speech. Today, the Supreme Court affirmed this ruling. As distateful as it sounds, this is the correct decision and it is consistent with First Amendment jurisprudence and the values it stands for. The Court's opinion is available here. For background information, including links to articles and videos on the case go here, here and here. To listen to the oral arguments before the Supreme Court go here. As for today's ruling, the Blog of the Legal Times reports (here) that Chief Justice John Roberts Jr, who wrote the majority opinion, announced it from the bench in an almost sorrowful tone, as if regretting that the Court was in the position of protecting such offensive speech. But he said that "as a nation we have chosen ... to protect even hurtful speech on public issues to ensure that we do not stifle public debate." Justice Samuel Alito was the court’s lone dissenter. He concluded that “Our profound national commitment to free and open debate is not a license for the vicious verbal assault that occurred in this case.” As expected there are a lot of comments out there already and I am sure there will be a lot more in the next few days. I will keep updating the list as I see them. For the moment, here are a few links: Analyzing Alito's dissent, Jonathan Turley points out: "It is precisely the type of extreme analysis that led some of us to object to Alito’s confirmation. . . . Alito does not show how we will distinguish between types of speech that he finds brutal and acceptable. It is precisely the type of slippery slope of analysis that we sought to avoid. Alito offers little compelling analysis in erasing the bright line protecting free speech. Indeed, his conclusion appears driven more by anger than analysis. His approach comes close to a content-based approach that would deny free speech protection to those who are most in need of it. We do not need the first amendment to protect popular speech. It is there to protect those who speak against the majority — those viewed as brutal and obnoxious by people like Alito." SCotUS blog's First Reactions to Snyder Another comment on the SCtoUS blog For more updates go here CNN (in print) CNN video:

No comments: