WASHINGTON -- The Supreme Court ruled Wednesday that a grieving father's pain over mocking protests at his Marine son's funeral must yield to First Amendment protections for free speech.
All but one justice sided with a fundamentalist church that has stirred outrage with raucous demonstrations contending God is punishing the military for the nation's tolerance of homosexuality.
The 8-1 decision in favor of the Westboro Baptist Church of Topeka, Kan., was the latest in a line of court rulings that, as Chief Justice John Roberts said in his opinion for the court, protects "even hurtful speech on public issues to ensure that we do not stifle public debate."
The decision ended a lawsuit by Albert Snyder, who sued church members for the emotional pain they caused by showing up at his son Matthew's funeral. As they have at hundreds of other funerals, the Westboro members held signs with provocative messages, including "Thank God for dead soldiers," "You're Going to Hell," "God Hates the USA/Thank God for 9/11," and one that combined the U.S. Marine Corps motto, Semper Fi, with a slur against gay men.
The church's decision to stage a protest in Pasco at the funeral of Marine Sgt. Travis Pfister on March 4, 2007, prompted an estimated 2,500 to 3,000 people to turn out for the funeral and to form a wall of mourners who blocked the few protesters from the Pfister family's sight.
Justice Samuel Alito, the Supreme Court's lone dissenter to the 8-1 ruling, said Snyder wanted only to "bury his son in peace." Instead, Alito said, the protesters "brutally attacked" Matthew Snyder to attract public attention. "Our profound national commitment to free and open debate is not a license for the vicious verbal assault that occurred in this case," he said.
The ruling, though, was in line with many earlier court decisions that said the First Amendment exists to protect robust debate on public issues and free expression, no matter how distasteful. A year ago, the justices struck down a federal ban on videos that show graphic violence against animals. In 1988, the court unanimously overturned a verdict for the Rev. Jerry Falwell in his libel lawsuit against Hustler magazine founder Larry Flynt over a raunchy ad.
What might have made this case different was that the Snyders are not celebrities or public officials, but private citizens. Both Roberts and Alito agreed that the Snyders were the innocent victims of the long-running campaign by the church's pastor, the Rev. Fred Phelps, and his family members who make up most of the Westboro Baptist Church. Roberts said there was no doubt the protesters added to Albert Snyder's "already incalculable grief."
But Roberts said the frequency of the protests -- and the church's practice of demonstrating against Catholics, Jews and many other groups -- is an indication that Phelps and his flock were not mounting a personal attack against Snyder but expressing deeply held views on public topics.
Indeed, Matthew Snyder was not gay. But "Westboro believes that God is killing American soldiers as punishment for the nation's sinful policies," Roberts said.
"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," Roberts said.
Snyder's reaction, at a news conference in York, Pa.: "My first thought was, eight justices don't have the common sense God gave a goat." He added, "We found out today we can no longer bury our dead in this country with dignity."
He said it was possible he would have to pay the Phelpses around $100,000, which they are seeking in legal fees, since he lost the lawsuit.