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Hustler Magazine* saves Westboro Baptist Church!
(Freedom of Hate Speech)

 

Wait! DO NOT go protest an EX’s funeral and reveal his dirty laundry! Just because Westboro Baptist Church has made a name for itself by protesting near soldiers' funerals, does NOT mean you can always get away with it!  In this case Mr. Snyder the father of a fallen soldier sued Westboro for emotional distress after they protested near his son’s funeral; the Case wound up in The U.S. Supreme Court. They decided what the protesters were doing was protected under the First Amendment. Unlike conventional media, I will do my best to report the facts and the basis for the Court's decision as unbiasedly as possible (Title Notwithstanding).

     Whatever your view of homosexuality, the war, abortion or whatever, this case is about the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution which states "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances."  This case related primarily to the “Congress shall make no law . . . abridging the freedom of speech” part. Still, it is the Supreme Court’s job to interpret what the heck that actually means!

     When analyzing whether a situation violates the Constitution, the Supreme Court uses specific tests to see if it passes constitutional muster.  They first distill some of the important facts.  In THIS case, Westboro members were 1000 feet away from the church where the funeral was held, and the father of the soldier DID see them prior to the funeral, but he learned on the news LATER who the protesters were and what was on their signs.  The Court also considered the fact that Westboro has a reputation for voicing opinions on "Public Issues". When speech relates to a "Public Issue" the court gives that speech the most protection and scrutiny.  Also, the speech at issue here was not directly targeting Snyder or anything specific to the funeral. The protesters were in a designated spot (1000 feet away from the church) and complied with all local laws; they did not go into the cemetery or on church property.

     This case was decided (primarily) on the CONTENT of the speech.  CONTENT is given much more protection than the FORM or method of the speech.  Snyder argued WHAT the protesters were saying was harmful enough to cause him emotional distress. (The law requires he show the protestors “intentionally or recklessly engaged in extreme and outrageous conduct that caused the plaintiff to suffer severe emotional distress”).

            The Court said “[S]peech on ‘matters of public concern’ . . . is ‘at the heart of the First Amendment’s protection.’” We NEED to keep debate on public issues PUBLIC. “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.”  P. 13 Syllabus . Phelps et al.Snyder 562 U. S. ____ (2011).

Justice Roberts concluded, “[o]ur 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. 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 stifle public debate. That choice requires that we shield Westboro from tort liability.”

     Many states and localities have enacted laws to prohibit "Protesting During a Funeral".  The Supreme Court declined to rule on whether such a law would be constitutional.  A broad law such as that which does not regulate the CONTENT of speech is likely to BE OKAY.  The Court pointed out that "[e]ven protected speech is not equally permissible in all places and at all times".

     Also, in case you’re wondering what the hell two private parties has to do with the U.S. Constitution . . . as the title indicates, the Supreme court relied on Hustler Magazine, Inc. v. Falwell, 485 U. S. 46 which basically allows private parties to invoke first amendment protection when the issue is before the court.

*Hustler Magazine, Inc. v. Falwell, 485 U. S. 46