In an important reaffirmation of the free speech, the Supreme Court has ruled 8-1 in favor of the Westboro Baptist Church. Westboro is infamous for its deranged, homophobic protests at funerals of falled U.S. troops. In an opinion by Chief Justice John Roberts, the Court refused to allow the universal disgust at Westboro’s views influence its decision. Only Justice Samuel Alito was willing to radically curtail free speech to punish Westboro.
The father of a fallen Marine sued the small church under claims of harassment and an intentional infliction of emotional distress. I have previously written that such lawsuits are a direct threat to free speech, though I had serious problems with the awarding of costs to the church in a prior column.
Roberts held that the distasteful message cannot influence the message: “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 further noted that “Westboro believes that America is morally flawed; many Americans might feel the same about Westboro. Westboro’s funeral picketing is certainly hurtful and its contribution to public discourse may be negligible. As a nation we have chosen a different course — to protect even hurtful speech on public issues to ensure that we do not stifle public debate.”
The Court in cases like New York Times v. Sullivan have long limited tort law where it would undermine the first amendment. In this case, the Court continues that line of cases — rejecting the highly subjective approach espoused by Alito in his dissent:
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 is entitled to “special protection” under the First Amendment, and that protection cannot be overcome by a jury finding that the picketing was outrageous.
Justice Samuel Alito again gave little credence to concerns over the constitutional rights raised in the case. He insisted that “[i]n order to have a society in which public issues can be openly and vigorously debated, it is not necessary to allow the brutalization of innocent victims like petitioner.” Alito did not care that the protest was part of the bizarre religious and political beliefs of the Respondents:
Respondents’ motivation—“to increase publicity for its views,” ibid.—did not transform their statements attacking the character of a private figure into statements that made a contribution to debate on matters of public concern. Nor did their publicity-seeking motivation soften the sting of their attack.
It is precisely the type of extreme analysis that led some of us to object to Alito’s confirmation. (For a prior column, click here) Alito does not show how we will distinguish between types of speech that he finds brutal and acceptable. It is precisely the type of slippery slope of analysis that we sought to avoid. Alito offers little compelling analysis in erasing the bright line protecting free speech. Indeed, his conclusion appears driven more by anger than analysis. His approach comes close to a content-based approach that would deny free speech protection to those who are most in need of it. We do not need the first amendment to protect popular speech. It is there to protect those who speak against the majority — those viewed as brutal and obnoxious by people like Alito.
Here is the opinion: 09-751