The Westboro Church Supreme Court Opinion Hits Close to Home

After members of the Westboro Baptist church picketed the funeral of U.S. Marine Lance Cpl. Matthew A. Snyder on March 10, 2006, his family sued the church for defamation, invasion of privacy, and intentional infliction of emotional distress.  Snyder was killed in a Humvee accident on March 3, 2006 while serving in Iraq.  The Westboro Baptist church is an independent church known for its protests and extreme opposition of homosexuality, and many describe the church as a hate group. Members of the church displayed signs containing anti-gay messages such as “Thank God for Dead Soldiers”, “God Hates You”, “Fag Troops”, and “Semper Fi Fags” near the church where the funeral was held.

Many were outraged that the church showed such disrespect and hate toward the family of a soldier who died fighting for our country. The U.S. District court agreed that the church should be punished for its actions and awarded $5 million in damages to Snyder’s family. The Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit reversed the lower court’s award, finding that the church’s messages during the protest constituted free speech protected by the First Amendment. In an 8-1 majority, the Supreme Court affirmed the judgment of the Court of Appeals on March 2, 2011.

The issue of whether the First Amendment protects the church’s speech turned on whether such speech is of public concern or private concern.  The First Amendment rigorously protects speech regarding matters of public concern, while protection of speech regarding matters of private concern is less rigorous.  After examining the content and context of the church’s speech, the Court found that the messages on the signs related to broad interests of society rather than private concerns. Thus, the speech is protected under the First Amendment. The Court also noted that the protesters had a right to be where they had positioned themselves for the protest because they notified police of their intent to picket the funeral and conducted the protest under police supervision 1,000 feet from the church where the funeral was held.

Justice Alito was the only dissenting voice in the case. In his dissenting opinion, he wrote “[o]ur profound national commitment to free and open debate is not a license for the vicious verbal assault that occurred in this case….Mr. Snyder wanted what is surely the right of any parent who experiences such an incalculable loss: to bury his son in peace.”

Many South Carolinians were upset by the Supreme Court’s ruling because the church has also directed its hateful messages toward families of fallen South Carolina military personnel. In addition to protesting at the State House last March, the church planned protests at several locations in the Charleston area between March 22 and 24 of this year.  The group planned demonstrations at Charleston Air Force Base, James Island Charter High School, Wando High School, West Ashley High School, Fort Dorchester High School, the College of Charleston, the Jewish Community Center, and Charleston Harbor Resort and Marina.

Miller|Conway is a Goose Creek law firm serving Charleston and Greater South Carolina. Please contact us to speak with one of our attorneys.

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