How would you have voted in the recent Supreme Court decision in the case between a grieving father and a church, whose hateful members regularly picket funerals and memorial services around the country – all in the name of their crusade against gays and lesbians in America.
“God hates fags” and “Thank God for dead soldiers” said some of their signs, reflecting their belief that America is being punished for tolerating homosexuality.
For the Supreme Court it seemed like an easy decision when it this week upheld the church’s right to use its vitriolic language during its members’ demonstrations, citing the right to free speech in the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. It did so almost unanimously – only one of the court’s most conservative justices, Samuel Alito, dissented, saying that in this case the hateful verbal attacks by the church members violated the father’s right of privacy when burying his son, who had died in Iraq.
The case had reached the Supreme Court after the father had sued to church. The father, after losing, said that the eight justices had no more sense than a goat.
Is there a limit to free speech in America? When it comes to this country’s public debate, the Supreme Court seems to answer that question with a “no,” in spite of the political differences on the Court and in spite of its obvious sympathies towards the father. There was nothing illegal in the church’s action, it said. The demonstrators kept the lawful distance to the funeral, or about 1,000 feet, and they engaged in a debate through their signs and placards on public issues, such as homosexuality and gay rights.
It was the second verdict in a relatively short time that the Court had sided with free speech. Then, eight justices, again with Alito dissenting, declared that a law forbidding video films about extreme cruelty towards animals violated the first amendment on free speech.
Speech can inflict great pain, said Chief Justice John G. Roberts, but we “cannot react to that pain by punishing the speaker.” Free speech, he added, protects “even hurtful speech on public issues to ensure that we do not stifle public debate.”
The court’s decision in Snyder v. Phelps was correct, many seemed to say afterwards, for it continued to protect one of America’s most precious rights, freedom of speech.