Hateful Speech Protected – Hooray (Not)
The U.S. Supreme Court decided yesterday that the family of a fallen U.S. soldier cannot recover damages for intentional infliction of emotional distress from the Westboro Baptist “Church” based on its picketing near the soldier’s funeral. The members of the “church” (I am using quotation marks because it is a “church in the loosest sense of the word – it consists almost entirely of relatives of its “pastor” Fred Phelps) carried signs that were simply too hateful and homophobic to repeat here. This type of “protest” is something the “church” does on a regular basis. Read the opinion if you are interested. The Supreme Court ruled that the First Amendment shielded the “church” and its “pastor” from liability. As it noted:
Westboro addressed matters of public import on public property, in a peaceful manner, in full compliance with the guidance of local officials. It did not disrupt Mathew Snyder’s funeral, and its choice to picket at that time and place did not alter the nature of its speech. Because this Nation has chosen to protect even hurtful speech on public issues to ensure that public debate is not stifled, Westboro must be shielded from tort liability for its picketing in this case.
As a result of its ruling, the Supreme Court vacated a jury award to the soldier’s family of $5 million. And the Supreme Court is right. The First Amendment exists for speech we hate, not for speech we like. But I have to say, I wouldn’t have minded too much if it had looked the other way this once. And since we all have First Amendment rights, I’d just like to tell the “Reverend” Phelps that he is a sick, pathetic “human being.” And I feel a mixture of contempt and pity for the members of his church – contempt for those who actually believe in his garbage and pity for those who have no choice in the matter.