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article imageSupreme Court rules in favor of Westboro funeral protesters

By Kim I. Hartman     Mar 2, 2011 in World
Washington - The Supreme Court ruled Wednesday that the First Amendment protects the members of Westboro Baptist Church and their anti-gay, anti-military, anti-Obama, 'God Hates' rhetoric that has been met with contempt, anger and revulsion across the nation.
The Westboro Baptist Church group, made up primarily of members of the Phelps family, led by Fred Phelps, from Topeka, Kansas, has picketed at funerals for military soldiers, public figures, AIDS victims, and children across the country proclaiming that God is punishing America and its troops because of its tolerance of homosexuality.
"The court voted 8-1 in favor of the Westboro Baptist Church. 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," reports AOL News.
Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts wrote the opinion (pdf) for the court.
"At issue was a delicate test between the privacy rights of grieving families and the free speech rights of demonstrators, however disturbing and provocative their message. Several states have attempted to impose specific limits on when and where the church members can protest, reports CNN.
"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," Chief Justice John Roberts wrote for the majority."
"For the past 20 years, the congregation of the Westboro Baptist Church has picketed military funerals to communicate its belief that God hates the United States for its tolerance of homosexuality, particularly in America’s military. The church’s picketing has also condemned the Catholic Church for scandals involving its clergy. Fred Phelps, who founded the church, and six Westboro Baptist parishioners (all relatives of Phelps) traveled to Maryland to picket the funeral of Marine Lance Corporal Matthew Snyder, who was killed in Iraq in the line of duty, wrote Roberts.
The picketing took place on public land approximately 1,000 feet from the church where the funeral was held, in accordance with guidance from local law enforcement officers. The picketers peacefully displayed their signs—stating, e.g., “Thank God for Dead Soldiers,” “Fags Doom Nations,” “America is Doomed,” “Priests Rape Boys,” and “You’re Going to Hell”—for about 30 minutes before the funeral began. Matthew Snyder’s father (Snyder), petitioner here, saw the tops of the picketers’ signs when driving to the funeral, but did not learn what was written on the signs until watching a news broadcast later that night. Snyder filed a diversity action against Phelps, his daughters—who participated in the picketing—and the church (collectively Westboro) alleging, as relevant here, state tort claims of intentional infliction of emotional distress, intrusion upon seclusion, and civil conspiracy.
A jury held Westboro liable for millions of dollars in compensatory and punitive damages. Westboro challenged the verdict as grossly excessive and sought judgment as a matter of law on the ground that the First Amendment fully protected its speech. The District Court reduced the punitive damages award, but left the verdict otherwise intact. The Fourth Circuit reversed, concluding that Westboro’s statements were entitled to First Amendment protection because those statements were on matters of public concern, were not provably false, and were expressed solely through hyperbolic rhetoric."
"What Westboro said, in the whole context of how and where it chose to say it, is entitled to special protection under the First Amendment and that protection cannot be overcome by a jury finding that the picketing was outrageous," said Roberts.
In the lone dissenting vote, Justice Samuel Alito wrote: " The respondents’ outrageous conduct caused petitioner great injury, and the Court now compounds that injury by depriving petitioner of a judgment that acknowledges the wrong he suffered. In order to have a society in which public issues can be openly and vigorously debated, it is not necessary to allow the brutalization of innocent victims like petitioner. I therefore respectfully dissent."
"Forty-eight states, 42 U.S. senators and veterans groups sided with Snyder, asking the court to shield funerals from the Phelps family's psychological terrorism," reported AOL.
The Associated Press, and other media organizations "urged the court to side with the Phelps family because of concerns that a victory for Snyder could erode speech rights."
Following what appears to be a recent hacking during a live interview, as reported on by Digital Journal, the Westboro Baptist Church website continues to be unresponsive to attempts to access the page and read any updated statements from the Phelps family on the Supreme Court decision.
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