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Supreme Court: 'hurtful speech' of Westboro Baptist Church is protected

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In a lone dissent, Justice Samuel Alito said the nation’s commitment to free and open debate “is not a license for the vicious verbal assault that occurred in this case.”

“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 said.

At issue in the case, Syder v. Phelps, was whether the Westboro Baptist Church and its protesting members could be sued for the emotional distress they caused to Albert Snyder when the church decided to use his son’s military funeral to try to gain media attention for its controversial religious message.

Preacher Fred Phelps and his followers say that God is punishing the United States for its tolerance of gay rights by causing the deaths of US service members in overseas wars.

In March 2006, seven Westboro Baptist Church members took up a position outside the church where the funeral of US Marine Matthew Snyder was to be conducted. They displayed signs proclaiming: “Thank God for Dead Soldiers,” and “You’re Going to Hell.”

The protesters stood in a cordoned off area approved by police about a thousand feet from the church. They sang songs and waved their signs. They conducted the protest for a half hour and left eight minutes after the funeral began.

Mr. Snyder later told reporters that the Westboro Baptist Church’s selection of his son’s funeral for the protest had tarnished forever his final moments with Matthew. He hired a lawyer and sued.

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