Hurtful & Hateful Speech Protected

March 7, 2011

In a recent decision delivered by Chief Justice Roberts, the United States Supreme Court addressed the question whether the First Amendment shields church members from tort liability for their hateful speech. The followers of the Westboro Baptist Church in Topeka, Kansas (Defendants), believe that God hates and punishes the United States for its tolerance of homosexuality, particularly in America’s military. Defendants picketed the funeral of Marine Lance Corporal Snyder, who was killed in Iraq in the line of duty. Defendants picketed on public land displaying signs stating, e.g., “Thank God for Dead Soldiers,” “Fags Doom Nations,” “America is Doomed,” “Priests Rape Boys,” and “You’re Going to Hell”, approximately 1,000 feet from the church where the funeral was held. Plaintiff, father of the deceased soldier, filed action under various tort theories.  Justice Roberts stated, “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 for its picketing in this case.” Snyder v. Phelps, 09-751, 2011 WL 709517 (U.S. Mar. 2, 2011). The Supreme Court oral argument transcript is here: 2010 WL 3907899.