Washington, DC – This morning, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld free speech rights in a case that could have had significant negative repercussions for those who seek to express unpopular views. The Court’s ruling is in keeping with the position that Liberty Counsel advocated in the Amicus Brief it filed in the matter. In Snyder v. Phelps, Albert Snyder filed suit seeking monetary damages from the Fred Phelps family and its Westboro Baptist Church for protesting at the funeral of his son, a fallen war hero. Snyder did not actually see the protest prior to the funeral, as the protesters were more than 1,000 feet from the location, but was later told about it. Although Liberty Counsel expressly condemns the offensive tactics employed by the Phelpses and deplores the content of their rhetoric, Liberty Counsel filed an Amicus Brief in support of the First Amendment freedoms of all Americans that could be affected by the outcome of this case.
Writing for the majority in an 8-1 decision, Chief Justice John Roberts said, “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 underlying 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.’ 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.’”
Phelps and his family have been protesting for years and, in fact, protested the funeral of the late Dr. Jerry Falwell. Although Liberty Counsel recognizes that such protests and picketing events are offensive and in poor taste, the group also recognizes that the bad facts of this case could have negatively affected the legitimate free speech rights of law-abiding Americans. This case could give a veto right to anyone who claims the speech of another is “offensive.” Today the offensive speech of the Phelpses was on trial, but tomorrow it could be religious, pro-life or pro-family speech, or any other speech for that matter.
Mathew Staver, Founder of Liberty Counsel, commented: “The Supreme Court clearly recognized that the bad facts of this case could lead to the restriction of legitimate free speech rights of law-abiding citizens. The First Amendment does not grant to anyone a veto right over another person’s speech, simply because it might be offensive. Free speech needs breathing room. I would rather tolerate a person’s offensive speech than be silenced by the force of law.”
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