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Snyder v. Phelps, et al: finally, something Alito and I can agree on.

02/03/2011

The big story that caught my attention today is the Supreme Court ruling on Snyder v. Phelps et al.

Albert Snyder, father of deceased Lance Cpl. Matthew Snyder, won an $11 million judgment against Fred Phelps and his organization, the vitriolic Westboro Baptist Church, alleging that protesters at his son’s funeral and later Web posts criticizing the Snyders’ parenting caused him significant emotional distress. The judgment was later reduced to $5 million and later overturned on appeal. The writ of certiorari filed in the Supreme Court was for the justices to either uphold the appeal ruling, thereby asserting that the WBC acted lawfully and within their constitutional rights, or to overturn the appeal ruling and agree with the lower court that Snyder was entitled to his original judgment.

In an 8-1 ruling, the justices voted to uphold the appeal ruling. Chief Justice John Roberts wrote the majority Opinion of the Court, the crux of which seems to be the question of whether the WBC’s protests qualify as “matters of public concern”, which he asserts they do (see pp. 6-7 in the linked opinion above). Also at issue is whether WBC was guilty of intrusion upon seclusion because they protested at a funeral in which Snyder and others constituted a “captive audience”; however, in the opinion Chief Justice Roberts points out that precedent places the primary burden of avoiding harmful speech on the listener(s) rather than the speaker(s) (page 13), and that due to their distance from the funeral itself the protesters were not causing the funeral-goers to be a captive audience. Roberts is careful to state, however, that the Court’s ruling is narrow and not meant to be applied outside the unique facts of the case at hand.

Justice Stephen Breyer wrote a concurring opinion in which he upheld the key points of the official opinion, but also acknowledged points made by Justice Samuel Alito in his dissenting opinion and further iterated that this case is a unique situation that should not be used as a hard and fast template for future discussions on the subject. In his dissent, meanwhile, Justice Alito took issue with the Court’s ruling that the First Amendment protects actions such as those taken by the protesters at the Snyder funeral not only because of the location of their protests and the fact that the Snyders are private citizens, but also because he argues that this particular attack by the WBC was personally directed at Matthew and his family — in a press release following the funeral they called him out for being Catholic and a soldier — and not intended to contribute to reasonable debate on issues of public concern.

Justice Alito further argues that the incendiary and personally-directed statements of the WBC should not be protected simply because they were part of expanded statements that could be considered issues of public conern; that WBC’s statements were “part of a cold and calculated strategy to slash a stranger as a means of attracting public attention” (p. 10 of the dissent); and that the fact that the protests occurred on public property shouldn’t make them immune to prosecution — “there is no good reason to treat a verbal assault based on the conduct or character of a private figure like Matthew Snyder any differently” than riotous or defamatory speech.

Now that everybody’s on the same page…

When I read the news coverage of the Court’s ruling, I was originally inclined to express agreement with both the majority and dissenting opinions. However, after reading the official opinions (linked above, or available on the Supreme Court’s Web site), I have to say that I agree wholeheartedly with Justice Alito. All three opinions on the ruling interpret the proceedings in a very narrow context, but I think that the majority has erred too gravely on the side of protecting harmful speech and has not paid enough attention to the legal restrictions of the type of speech exhibited by the WBC. Alito, meanwhile, has delved into the laws in place specifically designed to provide relief against such hateful speech that conceals itself in just enough statements of “public concern” to cast doubt on their intent.

I firmly believe in upholding our First Amendment right to freedom of speech, even if that speech isn’t popular or even ventures into the territory of “hateful” and “harmful”. However, I don’t think that free speech would be necessarily threatened had the entire Court gone with Justice Alito in this case — after all, free speech isn’t threatened by exceptions already in place that protect individuals against slander and libel, defamation and the disclosure of issues of private concern.

Rather than protecting “free speech”, the Snyder ruling protects activity that the WBC themselves admit is not legal or appropriate (they didn’t contest the allegations against them in their response) by allowing them to hide behind the First Amendment. For all of their speech that can be considered matters of “public” concern, and for all of their posturing that they acted in a lawful manner, their interjection of actions and statements that are not protected should nullify their protection in a narrow ruling of this case — just as any other protester’s protection would be nullified if they punched somebody in the face.

Fortunately, the Westboro Baptist Church is at this moment the only organization in our country that uses such particular tactics to advance their message of hate, and I can only hope that other organizations don’t take this ruling as the go-ahead to do the same. Short of waging war on the WBC, all I can suggest is to let love and support overcome their message — if you are unlucky enough to encounter them, follow the example of Ohio Wesleyan University’s “Love Day on the JAY” and other similar counter-protests that embrace a loving and peaceful message rather than directly engaging the lunacy of the brightly-colored hate signs.

 

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2 comments

  1. Thank you for this post. I put a link to this entry from my blog where I was myself lamenting the SCOTUS ruling. I liked what you had to say about it.


  2. […] Snyder v. Phelps, et al: finally, something Alito and I can agree on. (shanshantastic.wordpress.com) […]



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