Today’s Supreme Court ruling affirming the First Amendment right to verbally attack fallen servicemembers and their families near funerals raised the ire of veterans’ groups, but a First Amendment lawyer said the ruling reaffirmed fundamental American rights.
The ruling overturned a $5 million civil judgment against Westboro Baptist Church, which in 2006 protested near the funeral of Marine Lance Cpl. Matthew Snyder near Baltimore. The church had been sued by Snyder’s father for wrongs including the intentional infliction of emotional distress.
Veteran’s groups said they wished the Supreme Court were more sensitive to military families’ grief.
“The Veterans of Foreign Wars of the U.S. thanks the Supreme Court for considering the case, but is greatly disappointed with the result,” said VFW National Commander Richard L. Eubank in a statement released on the group’s website. “The Westboro Baptist Church may think they have won, but the VFW will continue to support community efforts to ensure no one hears their voice, because the right to free speech does not trump a family’s right to mourn in private.”
Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America Executive Director Paul Rieckhoff, meanwhile, released this statement: “The Westboro Baptist Church has caused years of anguish and pain for military families and veterans who have lost loved ones. Their message of hate is not one that any family mourning the death of a loved one should have to hear. Fred Phelps and Westboro Church have made made it sport to mock Americans who sacrificed their lives for our nation. As veterans, we fought for the right to freedom of speech, but we need to strike a balance between protecting free speech and protecting grieving families. We are disappointed these hurtful and disgusting protests will continue.”
The ruling was not really a surprise, said Timothy Zick, law professor at the College of William and Mary.
“I think that it was a combination of the vitriolic speech [Westboro Baptist Church] engages in, combined with the nature of their targets — military funerals — that made the case more prominent than it might have been otherwise,” said Zick, author of the book “Speech Out of Doors: Preserving First Amendment Liberties in Public Places.” “It’s rooted in some very fundamental free speech principles, the primary one being the mere offensiveness of speech is not a proper grounds for restricting or suppressing or regulating speech.”