By an 8 to 1 vote, the Supreme Court affirmed the US right to free speech, even if the speech is that of the Topeka-based Westboro Baptist Church.
The church is notorious for picketing military funerals with hateful language and offensive gestures such as dragging the American flag on the ground. Chief Justice John Roberts acknowledged in the majority’s opinion the pain the church’s action may cause.
“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,” he remarked.
However, Roberts conceded, “On the facts before us, we cannot react to that pain by punishing the speaker.”
Justice Samuel Alito, the lone dissenting voice, commented that Westboro church is using the nation’s central right as a license for “vicious verbal assaults”.
“Respondents’ outrageous conduct caused petitioner great injury and the court now compounds that injury by depriving petitioner of a judgment that acknowledges the wrong he suffered,” Alito wrote.
Albert Snyder, the father of a fallen marine, originally sued the radical church in 2007 after its members picketed the funeral of his 20-year-old son, Matthew, holding signs reading "Thank God for Dead Soldiers" and "God Hates You".
The senior Snyder charged that Westboro had invaded his privacy and intentionally inflicted emotional distress. He also alleged civil conspiracy in his suit. His attorney, Sean Summers, said Snyder "simply wanted to bury his son in a private, dignified manner".
A jury awarded the Snyder family nearly $11 million, which was later reduced to $5 million, but a federal appeals court overturned the verdict, concluding that Westboro's First Amendment rights were violated. The case was later appealed all the way to the Supreme Court.
Margie Phelps, the daughter of Westboro founder and pastor Fred Phelps, represented the radical church during the October 6 hearing.
“There’s no line that can be drawn here without shutting down a lot of speech, and you all, above everybody, know you don’t want your speech shut down. This court is committed to not shutting down speech,” she told reporters after the hearing.
Today, Margie Phelps praised the victory in a video saying, “This isn’t about us. We didn’t bring this victory. God brought this victory.”
She also offered some insight into the church's motive for picketing military funerals.
“Let me tell you what this church does: [it] shut up [sic] all that talk about infliction of emotional distress. When you're standing there with your young child's body bits and pieces in a coffin you've been dealt some emotional distress by the Lord your God. Now the question is what do you do from there? Do you continue to proudly sin and watch it get worse and worse and worse? Or, do you be thankful that you’re still alive and you still have a chance to repent and obey?” she stated.
Westboro Baptist church, a self-described "primitive" church, proudly touts on its website over 40,000 pickets held. The congregation, mainly made up of Phelps’ relatives, pickets at schools, churches and funerals, holding "America Is Doomed" and "You're Going to Hell" signs, among others.
Despite the label Baptist in its name, the Southern Baptist Convention – the largest Protestant denomination in the country – has made it clear that the Kansas-based Westboro Baptist Church is not Southern Baptist.
SBC Vice President of Convention Relations Roger S Oldham has stated, "We repudiate the tactics used by Fred Phelps and his followers at Westboro and find them offensive," according to Baptist Press.
In the same article, Richard Land of the Ethics and Religious Liberty called the group “misguided zealots” and said “to do their despicable deeds in the name of God is blasphemous".