GOD HATES ALITO! Westboro Baptist Church Wins – First Amendment is Preserved

Just so you understand, according to Sam Alito, corporations have free speech rights, but people do not.

The Supreme Court handed down its decision in Snyder v. Phelps, otherwise known as the “God Hates Fags” case.

To understand this case, you must unplug your emotional reaction to the speech that brought about the case in the first place. The fact is, nobody likes the Westboro Baptist Church. Or, more to the point, nobody worth a damn does. If you are one of the three people in America who does not know about Westboro, here it is: Westboro is a “church” made up of some lowlives from Kansas. These lowlives believe that there is a magic zombie who lives in space. By the way, the space zombie is Jewish. They think that the space zombie, and his father, who is the same person as the zombie, wrote a book. They also believe that this book says that homosexuals are bad. (mmmkay?).

As if that isn’t nutty enough, they also believe that the United States is too nice to homosexuals, and therefore this magic space zombie jew and his father (who is the same person as the magic space zombie jew) do bad things to America and Americans to punish us all for not killing homosexuals. To demonstrate this belief, the Westboro members go to funerals for soldiers killed in combat, and they hold up signs that say “GOD HATES FAGS” and “THANK GOD FOR DEAD SOLDIERS”.

Naturally, this chaps the ass of the families of the dead soldiers. It chaps my ass too. Were I the benevolent dictator of this country, I might very well have the Westboro followers rounded up, shoved into a wood chipper, and we would all live happily ever after. Of course, once I was done with that, my taste for blood would be unquenchable, and next thing you know, 100 million people would be run through the wood chipper before I got to half the people who piss me off.

Which is why I shouldn’t be the dictator… nor should anyone else… Which is one of the reasons we have a First Amendment. If we have free speech, we have our greatest check on tyranny. It is the cornerstone of American liberty. And, as abhorrent as the Westboro asshats are, it is more abhorrent to take a chip out of that cornerstone.

At least that is what I believe.

Fortunately, eight justices on the United States Supreme Court agree with me.

Today’s decision is a warming reaffirmation of the First Amendment — from a Court that isn’t exactly made up of some of the most free-speech friendly legal minds we’ve ever had.

In this case, poor Mr. Snyder lost his son. The Westboro asshats protested at his funeral, although Mr. Snyder could not see them at the time.

Although Snyder testified that he could see the tops of the picket signs as he drove to the funeral, he did not see what was written on the signs until later that night, while watching a news broadcast covering the event. (Op. at 3)

So lets keep this fact in mind. As a commenter noted (before this addition), most Americans think that Westboro interrupted or disrupted the funeral. This is not the case. (And if it were, I think the case would have come out differently). The Westboro asshats had a right to be where they were, and they had a right to say what they said.

Nevertheless, Mr. Snyder sued for defamation, publicity given to private life, intentional infliction of emotional distress, intrusion upon seclusion, and civil conspiracy. The defamation claim and publicity given to private life claims were squashed at the trial court level on summary judgment. Snyder v. Phelps, 533 F. Supp. 2d 567, 570 (D.Md. 2008)

A jury found for Snyder on the intentional infliction of emotional distress, intrusion upon seclusion, and civil conspiracy claims, and held Westboro liable for $2.9 mil- lion in compensatory damages and $8 million in punitive damages. Westboro filed several post-trial motions, in- cluding a motion contending that the jury verdict was grossly excessive and a motion seeking judgment as a matter of law on all claims on First Amendment grounds. The District Court remitted the punitive damages award to $2.1 million, but left the jury verdict otherwise intact. Id., at 597.

In the Court of Appeals, Westboro’’s primary argument was that the church was entitled to judgment as a matter of law because the First Amendment fully protected West- boro’’s speech. The Court of Appeals agreed. 580 F. 3d 206, 221 (CA4 2009). The court reviewed the picket signs and concluded that Westboro’’s statements were entitled to First Amendment protection because those statements were on matters of public concern, were not provably false, and were expressed solely through hyperbolic rhetoric. Id., at 222––224. (Op. at 4)

Speech on a matter of public concern

The Supreme Court’s opinion begins with a discussion of the public vs. private concern distinction — because speech on a matter of public concern is entitled to the highest degree of First Amendment protection.

Whether the First Amendment prohibits holding West- boro liable for its speech in this case turns largely on whether that speech is of public or private concern, as determined by all the circumstances of the case. ““[S]peech on ‘‘matters of public concern’’ . . . is ‘‘at the heart of the First Amendment’’s protection.’’”” Dun & Bradstreet, Inc. v. Greenmoss Builders, Inc., 472 U. S. 749, 758––759 (1985) (opinion of Powell, J.) (quoting First Nat. Bank of Boston v. Bellotti, 435 U. S. 765, 776 (1978)). The First Amend- ment reflects ““a profound national commitment to the principle that debate on public issues should be uninhibi- ted, robust, and wide-open.”” New York Times Co. v. Sulli- van, 376 U. S. 254, 270 (1964). That is because ““speech concerning public affairs is more than self-expression; it is the essence of self-government.”” Garrison v. Louisiana, 379 U. S. 64, 74––75 (1964). Accordingly, ““speech on public issues occupies the highest rung of the hierarchy of First Amendment values, and is entitled to special protection.”” Connick v. Myers, 461 U. S. 138, 145 (1983) (internal quotation marks omitted). (Op. at 5-6)

The Court noted that while discerning private concern from public concern is often a difficult task, there are general guidelines for a court to follow. “Deciding whether speech is of public or private concern requires us to examine the ““‘‘content, form, and context’’”” of that speech, ““‘‘as revealed by the whole record.’’”” (Op. at 7). However, the vitriolic nature of the speech, or its offensiveness does not factor in to the equation.

Speech deals with matters of public concern when it can ““be fairly considered as relating to any matter of politi- cal, social, or other concern to the community,”” Connick, supra, at 146, or when it ““is a subject of legitimate news interest; that is, a subject of general interest and of value and concern to the public,”” San Diego, supra, at 83––84. See Cox Broadcasting Corp. v. Cohn, 420 U.S. 469, 492––494 (1975); Time, Inc. v. Hill, 385 U. S. 374, 387–– 388 (1967). The arguably ““inappropriate or controversial character of a statement is irrelevant to the question whether it deals with a matter of public concern.”” Rankin v. McPherson, 483 U. S. 378, 387 (1987). (Op. at 6-7)

The Court held that Westboro’s speech was on matters of public concern, and this is one of the more reassuring portions of the opinion. In the future, this will be used by defendants in free speech cases to demonstrate just how broad the definition of “matter of public concern” truly is.

The ““content”” of Westboro’’s signs plainly relates to broad issues of interest to society at large, rather than matters of ““purely private concern.”” Dun & Bradstreet, supra, at 759. The placards read ““God Hates the USA/Thank God for 9/11,”” ““America is Doomed,”” ““Don’’t Pray for the USA,”” ““Thank God for IEDs,”” ““Fag Troops,”” ““Semper Fi Fags,”” ““God Hates Fags,”” ““Maryland Taliban,”” ““Fags Doom Nations,”” ““Not Blessed Just Cursed,”” ““Thank God for Dead Soldiers,”” ““Pope in Hell,”” ““Priests Rape Boys,”” ““You’’re Going to Hell,”” and ““God Hates You.”” App. 3781––3787. While these messages may fall short of refined social or political commentary, the issues they highlight——the political and moral conduct of the United States and its citizens, the fate of our Nation, homosexual- ity in the military, and scandals involving the Catholic clergy——are matters of public import. The signs certainly convey Westboro’’s position on those issues, in a manner designed, unlike the private speech in Dun & Bradstreet, to reach as broad a public audience as possible. And even if a few of the signs——such as ““You’’re Going to Hell”” and ““God Hates You””——were viewed as containing messages related to Matthew Snyder or the Snyders specifically, that would not change the fact that the overall thrust and dominant theme of Westboro’’s demonstration spoke to broader public issues. (Op. at 8)

Outrageousness of Speech is no impediment to its protection

This part of the opinion is heartening too, although it has a bit of a sour note in it. Although it affirms some strong First Amendment principles, it also seems to unnecessarily go out of its way to make it clear that this is a fact-based ruling, and that it should not be broadly interpreted.

But, lets dwell on the good part first:

Simply put, the church members had the right to be where they were. Westboro alerted local authorities to its funeral protest and fully complied with police guidance on where the picketing could be staged. The picketing was conducted under police supervision some 1,000 feet from the church, out of the sight of those at the church. The protest was not unruly; there was no shouting, profanity, or violence.

The record confirms that any distress occasioned by Westboro’s picketing turned on the content and viewpoint of the message conveyed, rather than any interference with the funeral itself. A group of parishioners standing at the very spot where Westboro stood, holding signs that said “God Bless America” and “God Loves You,” would not have been subjected to liability. It was what Westboro said that exposed it to tort damages. (Op. at 11-12)

And after setting up that “viewpoint discrimination ball,” the court tees it off hard here:

Given that Westboro’s speech was at a public place on a matter of public concern, that speech is entitled to “special protection” under the First Amendment. Such speech cannot be restricted simply because it is upsetting or arouses contempt. “If there is a bedrock principle underly- ing the First Amendment, it is that the government may not prohibit the expression of an idea simply because society finds the idea itself offensive or disagreeable.” Texas v. Johnson, 491 U. S. 397, 414 (1989). Indeed, “the point of all speech protection . . . is to shield just those choices of content that in someone’s eyes are misguided, or even hurtful.” Hurley v. Irish-American Gay, Lesbian and Bisexual Group of Boston, Inc., 515 U. S. 557, 574 (1995).

The jury here was instructed that it could hold Westboro liable for intentional infliction of emotional distress based on a finding that Westboro’s picketing was “outrageous.” “Outrageousness,” however, is a highly malleable standard with “an inherent subjectiveness about it which would allow a jury to impose liability on the basis of the jurors’ tastes or views, or perhaps on the basis of their dislike of a particular expression.” Hustler, 485 U. S., at 55 (internal quotation marks omitted). In a case such as this, a jury is “unlikely to be neutral with respect to the content of [the] speech,” posing “a real danger of becoming an instrument for the suppression of . . . ‘vehement, caustic, and some- times unpleasan[t]’ ” expression. Bose Corp., 466 U. S., at 510 (quoting New York Times, 376 U. S., at 270). Such a risk is unacceptable; “in public debate [we] must tolerate insulting, and even outrageous, speech in order to provide adequate ‘breathing space’ to the freedoms protected by the First Amendment.” Boos v. Barry, 485 U. S. 312, 322 (1988) (some internal quotation marks omitted). What Westboro said, in the whole context of how and where it chose to say it, is entitled to “special protection” under the First Amendment, and that protection cannot be overcome by a jury finding that the picketing was outrageous.

For all these reasons, the jury verdict imposing tort liability on Westboro for intentional infliction of emotional distress must be set aside. (Op. at 12-13)

This is a hell of a victory for free speech. We live in a political environment where the Right wing wants to limit all speech that criticizes the war and the Left wants to limit all speech that hurts anyone’s feelings. With that backdrop, this decision will make very few people happy. Veterans and Republicans will go all Walter Sobchak about Vietnam and 9/11. The PC crowd and the Democrats will whine into their tofu and lentils as they piss and moan that the First Amendment should not protect speech that makes someone feel bad. Most average Americans will say, “that just doesn’t seem right.”

But then, there will be a few of us who recognize that without free speech, we are not America. A few of us realize that freedom means having to tolerate opinions that you despise. I hope that a few of my readers are among that group, and that you go out and evangelize the good word that came down today, and you realize that Westboro Baptist Church and its merry band of asshats just did more for the cause of freedom than every man and woman who died in any American military adventure since 1953.

For that reason, the Westboro Baptist Church is the first entity to receive both the First Amendment Bad Ass award and the Asshat award in a single blog post. May their members choke to death on both.

29 Responses to GOD HATES ALITO! Westboro Baptist Church Wins – First Amendment is Preserved

  1. evrenseven says:

    Great post- 2 points:
    1) I loved Elie Mystal’s take over on Above the Law- that Scalito dissented here but concurred with the majority in Citizens United- corporations are people with full free speech rights, but actual people… well you get the idea.

    2) People forget (or simply aren’t told since the media leaves out crucial facts to make a legal story interesting) that these protests are occurring 1000 feet, in some cases 1000 YARDS from the funeral, and they can’t be along the funeral procession path. Snyder saw the protests on the news hours later. I bet if you polled the US, among those that new of the case, 80% of them would think that the protest was going on on top of the casket or some shit like that.

  2. writerdood says:

    I still think it should be legal to spray the fuckers with water cannons. Yeah, I agree with the ruling. It’s free speech. Doesn’t change the emotional distaste though.

  3. As long as they are privately-owned and operated water cannons, I’m not necessarily opposed to that idea.

    Although, I would prefer to hit them with super soakers filled with urine.

    • Godlovesdeadsoldiers says:

      Westboro is amazing and i want your piss filled super soakers all over my face!!!!!!!!!!!

  4. Justin T. says:

    Now that the first amendment is safe, why won’t these people do us all a favor and exercise their second amendment rights. On each other.

  5. alfred says:

    legally they have the right to free speech, however there is a time and place for such vulgarity. it is never morally right to be hurtful to anyone. the families have a right to grieve in peace. there are other forums and blogs available for this type of behavior, not in your face to the families. 1000 yds is not even close enough to being far away. i pray that all who subject the grieving families to this charade has it to come back on them. God help us all since we no longer follow the golden rule.

    • They were able to grieve in peace. They weren’t offended until they got home and saw the protest on TV. Please try and read the post before commenting, okay?

      • Amanda Glinski says:

        They were able to bury their son, but they were not able to entirely grieve in peace. They certainly weren’t done after they buried him. I agree that the majority decision came to the correct result based on the case law. I also agree that these people are abhorrent. I pray that the Snyders do find peace despite these “religious” folks.

      • TSpyder says:

        @ marcorandazza, you are incorrect, the “church” members themselves stated they would be picketing the funeral in a sense they used the funeral weather they were near it or at it, they said they were there. “Alito noted the church alerted local authorities and the media that its members would picket the funeral “to ensure that their protests will attract public attention.”

    • Pine says:

      A half mile is in your face? You have much sharper eyesight and a broader sense of space than I do.

  6. Joyce says:

    I think the decision is so knee-jerk it’s dead wrong. I don’t dispute WBC’s right to say those things, I dispute their right to say them AT FUNERALS. They’re using the funerals as an “emotional amplifier.” They wouldn’t get nearly the media coverage if they said those things on a street corner. It’s their USE of the funerals as a megaphone that shouldn’t be allowed.

    • Justin T. says:

      The problem with this is that if we carve out an exception for funerals, what other venues/fora are we going to have to except?

    • They didn’t say them AT the funeral. They said them NEAR the funeral. Again, please try and read the post before commenting.

  7. John David Galt says:

    I have no problem with this decision, as far as it goes. But I want to see them outlaw the picketing of private homes (because it sends the threat message “we know where you live.”)

  8. TvT says:

    Thank you, Marc, for clearing up what initially was painful to hear. Fair is fair though I was furious initially.

    As you know, we’ve just recently arrived in Germany for our 2nd tour abroad with the U.S. Army. My husband works directly with the emergency support unit here in the state of Hessen and our day was turned upside down when only hours after reading of this decision we learned a bus of American soldiers at the Frankfurt airport who just returned from Afghanistan were shot at by some motherfucking Muslim Serb asshole, may he never rest in peace.

    It’s extremely upsetting to realize that the bastards and bastardettes of Westboro Baptist Church should deserve any freedom at all when so many die in the name of their freedom to picket in the first place. I know you know this, as do your readers but it must be emphasized: fag solider or not, without him we have risk of losing our freedom to say hateful things or beautiful things and I know too many who wouldn’t ever have the balls to put on a uniform and fight for freedoms that are too often taken for granted. Thomas Jefferson said: “The price of freedom is eternal vigilance”. Each day I learn the truth of this.

    Though I often complain about the lacking logic of the US military, I hold – more now than in the past – a level of high respect to the men and women of service before me and I am reminded daily of their value. I, for one, am learning to appreciate freedom from a different eye and as such I am forced once again to be grateful for the ability to say what I think because I have legal right to, unlike say the fashion designer in the hot seat now, Galliano, who is being charged for anti-Semitic statements, wherein in France it is a crime to incite racial hatred.

    While those of the Westboro Baptist Church hold little value in my mind as human beings,this decision is a twisted victory and shows us that freedom always has a price and sometimes it stings in order to exist at all.

    • Godlovesdeadsoldiers says:

      Westboro is the best church in the world!!!!!!
      I want to have hot steamy anal sexual intercourse with all of them!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  9. Statham says:

    If “God Hates America” and these fuckin losers are AMERICANS, then wouldn’t God hate them too? This is exactly the problem with “religion”. Too many people in this world continue to use religion to disguise their disgustingly repulsive ideas and beliefs all the while promoting their ignorance, idiocy, and flat out stupidity. Spray ‘em with water cannons?!?! HA!!!! Mow these fuckin assholes down with the same “cannons” that have been killing our soldiers!! These people aren’t American whatsoever. Abhorrently disgusting!!

  10. as says:

    first, excellent post. second, i just looked up the “church”‘s beliefs on wiki. goodness, what a fetid swamp of hatred!

  11. m says:

    Great post randazza. Curious to hear your take on the whole business about the Court not considering the Internet posting, which they dropped a very long footnote about. If that had been properly raised in the cert pet/briefs yadayadayada, do you think that would have influenced the outcome? It’s bound to come up in some case down the line, possibly for some D other than Westboro.

  12. Tracey says:

    Good points, but I wish you hadn’t placed the blame for this asshatery on the Jews. The Westboro Wingnuts hate Jews too, you know. They are equal-opportunity asshats.

  13. gungho says:

    Westboro what a bunch of cry babies because Alito made sense. Here’s the thing that cocksucker Fred Phelps and his slut daughters who don’t need law licenses need to leave America. How about moving to the Sudan or Iran. Zimbabwe sounds like a nice place to live. Oh wait they don’t like non whites. Iran sounds too nice. Now thats perfect.

    • Ah, yes, the rhetorical device of the imbecile…. if you don’t like what the other person has to say, suggest that they leave the country and move somewhere that the imbecile doesn’t like either.

  14. rdryan12000 says:

    What exactly is Westboro trying to accomplish with all this hate mongering? It certainly will not turn anyone into a believer in or follower of their God. Sure, they have convictions, and feel strongly that the rest of the world needs to hear all about their convictions. Just seems to me that how you say something can be more important than what you are saying. I agree with the Supreme Courts’ decision. Last thing we want for America is it to be turned into a Libya. And since no one is joining the Westboro Baptist Church these days, I guess time will ultimately extinguish them and their hate and their screwed up religion.

    • M says:

      I wouldn’t be so quick to jump to the conclusion that nobody is on Westboro’s side. They had people coming up to agree with them and shake their hands outside the Supreme Court after the argument, as sick as that sounds. Some of the folks had come to the Court specifically to talk to the Westboro bunch or show their support for their religious beliefs. I was there and saw it and hear the conversations. Sadly there are people who hate gays so much or think the world is so sinful that they approve of Westboro’s lunacies. I don’t think Westboro will ever attract huge multitudes, but fringey groups of hatemongers of one stripe or another will probably always be with us and be able to garner some followers.

  15. [...] would some profanity on the radio be an issue in a country that so vehemently champions free [...]

  16. cb says:

    Westboro Baptist Church spreads its hate through picketing in our streets, provoking attacks, with abusive language and flag desecration, attempting to create a confrontation. This is not a church, this is a hate group. This is not about protesting, freedom, or God. They are in it for the money and the press; this is a family law firm. They are not a “church.” It is a scam. They go after anything that can get them in the news. This is a family of lawyers using this “god hates you” thing to make money. It is time for this scam to end.

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