Thursday, March 3, 2011

First Amendment Protects 'Hurtful' Speech, Court Says

Wall Street Journal
March 3, 2011

The First Amendment protects free speech even if it is as hurtful as signs at a Marine funeral proclaiming "Thank God for Dead Soldiers," the Supreme Court ruled Wednesday in a decision that was one of the court's most significant on freedom of expression in recent years.

The Westboro Baptist Church celebrated the death of Lance Cpl. Matthew Snyder in Iraq with signs such as "God Hates You," along with antigay messages at his funeral in Maryland in 2006. The late Marine's father sought damages for emotional distress, but the court ruled that he had no case.

"As a nation we have chosen…to protect even hurtful speech on public issues to ensure that we do not stifle public debate," Chief Justice John Roberts wrote for the court in an 8-1 decision. "That choice requires that we shield Westboro from tort liability for its picketing in this case."

Last April, in another 8-1 ruling, the court struck down a law banning animal-cruelty videos, saying it was too broad and might chill legitimate speech. Together, the rulings show a broad consensus on the court, spanning the frequent liberal-conservative ideological divide, protecting hateful or offensive speech.

The lone dissenter in both rulings, Justice Samuel Alito, wrote in Wednesday's case, "Our profound national commitment to free and open debate is not a license for the vicious verbal assault that occurred in this case."


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