March 2, 2011

Free Speech

Let’s get one thing out of the way immediately. I think that the activities of Fred Phelps and his Westboro Baptist Church are totally reprehensible. That said, I applaud the decision of the Supreme Court in Snyder v. Phelps et al., which was announced today.

Church members, as they are wont to do, protested against America on the occasion of the Maryland military funeral of Marine Lance Corporal Matthew Snyder. Snyder’s father sued Phelps in a Maryland court for intentional infliction of emotional distress, intrusion upon seclusion, and civil conspiracy. Phelps was given a multimillion dollar award by the trial court, but that award was first reduced and then overturned. Today, the United States Supreme Court ruled that the actions of Phelps and his church are protected by the First Amendment.

The 8–1 opinion of the Supreme Court held that, however obnoxious and hurtful were the signs carried by the defendants—they included “Thank God for Dead Soldiers” and “Fags Doom Nations”—the protesters were addressing public issues, obeyed applicable laws regarding their demonstration, and did not single out Phelps as a personal target. The court said that speech on public issues deserves the highest degree of First Amendment protection.

No doubt, today’s decision by the Supreme Court will be unpopular. Popular speech, however, does not require the protection of the First Amendment. The Supreme Court made the right decision in favor of free speech, and the freedom of all Americans was enhanced by the court’s decision.

Note: The New York Times story about the Snyder decision can be found here. The Web site of the Westboro Baptist Church can be found at I have not been able to reach the site tonight. One can imagine various reasons why that might be the case.

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