Why Supreme Court Affirmed Free Speech at Funerals

A democratic society is measured by the way it treats its citizens who have unpopular opinions. The original founders of the United States sought to ensure the continuation of their fledgling democracy by meticulously creating a constitution which outlines the basic rights of all citizens. One of those rights – in fact, scholars have called it the most important one – is freedom of expression.

The First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, which guarantees every American the right to unfettered freedom of speech, is considered by many experts around the world to serve a critical function in the maintenance of a viable, dynamic democracy where all voices are heard. Unfortunately, the right to freedom of expression is sometimes severely tested by vile, disgusting and hurtful speech.  

On March 2, 2011, the U.S. Supreme Court, by an 8 to 1 vote, decided that a grieving father’s pain at the funeral of his son, a Marine who was killed defending the United States, must yield to the rights of a small fundamentalist church which has used the funerals of fallen soldiers to demonstrate their opinion that God is punishing the U.S. military for the country’s tolerance of homosexuality.

An Ugly Scene Makes the Supreme Court Docket

The lawsuit that eventually worked its way to the Supreme Court was initiated by Albert Snyder, the father of former Lance Corporal, Matthew Snyder. He sued church members for the emotional pain they caused by demonstrating at his son’s funeral. Snyder’s service is not the first, nor likely the last, military funeral that the members of the Westboro Baptist Church have chosen to picket.

It has been reported by news wire services that the small Kansas church has demonstrated at hundreds of funerals where they held signs with provocative messages such as “Thank God for dead soldiers,” “You’re Going to Hell,” “God Hates the USA/Thank God for 9/11,” and one that combined the U.S. Marine Corps motto, Semper Fi, with a slur against gay men. Albert Snyder has noted that neither he, nor his deceased son, was gay.

The Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, John Roberts, wrote the majority opinion for the court. In this he noted, “As a nation we have chosen to protect even hurtful speech on public issues to ensure that we do not stifle public debate. The lone dissenter, Justice Samuel Alito, wrote in his opinion that Snyder wanted only to “bury his son in peace” and that the protesters “brutally attacked” Matthew Snyder to attract public attention. Justice Alito 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.”

Matthew Snyder’s funeral took place in March 2006. At the time, the Westboro protesters drew counter-demonstrators, as well as media coverage and a heavy police presence to maintain order. It was reported that several weeks later, Albert Snyder was surfing the Internet for tributes to his son from other soldiers and strangers when he came upon a poem on the Westboro Baptist website that condemned the soldier’s parents for the way they reared their son.

After reading this poem, Snyder filed a lawsuit accusing Fred Phelps, the pastor of the small church, of intentionally inflicting emotional distress. He won $11 million at trial, later reduced by a judge to $5 million. The federal appeals court in Richmond, Virginia threw out the verdict and said the Constitution shielded the church members from liability. The Supreme Court agreed.

The Ruling is No Surprise

In spite of the distasteful nature of this type of “speech,” the decision to uphold it was not seen as a surprise to court observers. This ruling was consistent with many earlier court decisions that held that the First Amendment exists to protect robust debate on public issues and free expression, no matter how distasteful. Wikipedia notes that in the past few years, the court struck down a federal ban on videos that show graphic violence against animals. In 1988, the court unanimously overturned a verdict for the Rev. Jerry Falwell in his libel lawsuit regarding a parody ad that appeared in Hustler magazine.

Some court observers felt that the fact that Matthew and Albert Synder were not celebrities or public officials might convince the justices that the lawsuit should be upheld. In the end, however, the majority of the court felt that Westboro Baptist Church was within its rights to demonstrate at the funerals even though Justice Roberts noted in his opinion that “there was no doubt the protesters added to Albert Snyder’s already incalculable grief.”

The Ramifications of the Ruling

As to be expected, veteran groups were appalled by this Supreme Court ruling. Online news sites noted that Veterans of Foreign Wars national commander, Richard L. Eubank said, “The Westboro Baptist Church may think they have won, but the VFW will continue to support community efforts to ensure no one hears their voice, because the right to free speech does not trump a family’s right to mourn in private.”

After the ruling was announced, news wire services reported that forty-eight states, 42 U.S. senators and veterans groups had sided with Snyder, asking the court to shield funerals from the Phelps family’s “psychological terrorism.” Most media organizations, including The Associated Press, urged the court to side with the Westboro Baptist church because of concerns that a victory for Snyder could erode speech rights. In spite of their support for the preservation of the Phelps family’s First Amendment rights, these media organizations made it a point to distance themselves from supporting the church’s message and tactics.

It has been noted by many foreign and domestic observers that democracy is messy. Ensuring that the government never tramples on the basic rights of its citizens – such as freedom of expression – requires that it allows sometimes outrageous sentiments to be expressed.

Historians have noted that the “founding fathers,” of the United States, while never anticipating the sophistication of the communications media that have come to pass, felt that a free and open dialog between the citizens and their government would allow everyone – the majority and the minority – to express views that would ultimately be judged as valid or ridiculous by others in the society. This marketplace of ideas must include those that are uplifting and some that are disgusting.  

In his written opinion, Justice Roberts summed up the challenge of allowing even those who might be considered on the lunatic fringe of politics a chance to be heard. “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.”