The Supreme Court made a foolish decision today, ruling 8-1 that hateful protesters have a right to protest at military funerals. The protesters hail from the Westboro Baptist Church, a name that is only 33% accurate.
At issue is whether these so-called Christians can protest military funerals with signs like “God hates fags” and “Thank God for dead soldiers.”
Writing for the majority, Chief Justice John Roberts wrote:
“Speech is powerful. It can stir people to action, move them to tears of both joy and sorrow, and — as it did here — inflict great pain. On the facts before us, we cannot react to that pain by punishing the speaker.”
In what way is this law punishing the speaker? The local government was telling Fred Phelps that he had a right to spew his hateful speech anywhere he wanted, except at a graveyard. Phelps could print his own newspaper, talk on a radio program, hand out flyers outside the 7-11 or just scream at the street corner. Anything but a graveyard.
The local government was not regulating the content of speech, just its location. Just as you have the unfettered right to support your favorite candidate for office, local government can prevent you from handing out flyers or telling everyone as they come in to “Vote for Smith” at the polling station. Does this commonsense regulation also punish the speaker? Of course not.
Justice Samuel Alito was the lone voice of reason. In his dissent, he correctly focused the debate on the right not only of Fred Phelps, but also of the parents of the dead soldier.
“Our profound national commitment to free and open debate is not a license for the vicious verbal assault that occurred in this case,” Alito wrote.
“Mr. Snyder wanted what is surely the right of any parent who experiences such an incalculable loss: to bury his son in peace,” he added. “But respondents, members of the Westboro Baptist Church, deprived him of that elementary right.”
A law eliminating funeral protests would not eliminate Fred Phelps’ right to free (and hateful) speech. But the right to bury our dead in peace? The Supreme Court won’t recognize that right at all. How shameful. In a country that has lost our respect for life at its beginning, I suppose it’s no surprise we also have no respect for our dead.
An interesting footnote: Since the retirement of Justice John Paul Stevens, not one member of the Court served in the military.