Bravo John Roberts

Justices' Conference Room

Let’s hear it for the latest decision of the Supreme Court. I never thought I would be saying this about a Robert’s Court decision, but miracles do happen.

Earlier this year, the Westboro Baptist Church protested at our High Holiday Services in Chicago, only a few of them, standing on a corner across from where our celebrations were taking place. Their signs were almost comical, because they were so outrageous. With US flags wrapped about their ankles and dragging on the ground, they seemed strange and freakish caricatures.  I refused to absorb their negative energy, but found their peculiarly irrational and mean-spirited sentiments baffling.

Then the Supreme Court accepted a case, Phelps v Snyder, to decide whether this church had the right to protest at a soldier’s funeral where the father claimed emotional distress from the lies and mockery they presented at this sensitive, disquieting, and vulnerable time. The father, Albert Snyder, sued the church, claiming that “funerals are private events, and the family should be free from such a demonstration when mourning the loss of a child killed in service to his country.”

The decision, 8 to 1, supporting Freedom of speech (and thereby the Westboro Baptist Church), was announced a few days ago. Writing for the majority, Chief Justice John 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……we cannot react to that pain by punishing the speaker.” He continued that under the First Amendment we must protect “even hurtful speech on public issues to ensure that we do not stifle public debate.”

As insensitive and outrageous as these people of Westboro Baptist Church are, by taking away their right to speak what they think their truth is, we would be opening a door for others to whittle away at ours.

Bravo John Roberts.

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2 Responses to Bravo John Roberts

  1. Yes, absolutely, free speech needs to be protected, but I worry, just a little about the protection of speech that “hurts” — how far is this language from dismantling protections for victims around hate speech? How much does it protect voices that hide behind certain kinds of rhetoric to promote hate/violence (for example, how does hate loaded speech contribute to outward acts of violence to women?). So, not to burst the bubble of the Supreme Court actually supporting the First Amendment, but with this Court, (and given the language that you quote) I wonder how this then gets interpreted and applied. Whew. Also, Ed says I am in battle mode at the moment, so take my comment with a good dose of salt!

  2. Mrs. Chili says:

    I spent a couple of days after that decision talking my students off their respective ledges. They were outraged that the decision came down the way it did and were shocked that the only thing *I* was upset about was that it wasn’t a unanimous ruling.

    I spent some time explaining how the First works, and what kinds of things we have to put up with in order to enjoy the freedoms it extends to all of us. What the kids wanted was for the Court to legislate decency and that’s a path I don’t want to even consider. We don’t have to like what someone is saying, but we do have to defend his right to say it, however vile and ignorant it may be, because to silence the crazies risks our being silenced, too.

    I’m still wondering what the HELL Alito was thinking in dissenting….

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