Good decision defends bad rhetoric

By Kay Nguyen

The Supreme Court’s recent decision to protect protesting Westboro Baptist Church members and their right to free speech meant good things for the sanctity of the First Amendment.

But it doesn’t say that those members are good people.

The 8-1 decision that ruled in favor of Westboro members and its pastor and leader, Fred Phelps, was monumental because of the uniquely emotional nature of the situation at hand.

In 2006, Marine Matthew Snyder died while serving in Iraq. Members of the church, which is based in Topeka, Kan., came to protest at Snyder’s funeral in Westminster, Md.

While the particular situation — protesters were holding signs emblazoned with phrases like “God Hates Fags” and other irreverent, hateful things —  was definitely a case in which protestors were in the wrong morally, they were not legally wrong.

It saddens me to think that Snyder died while fighting to uphold the very rights that protect the controversial Westboro protesters and their speech.

I believe freedom of speech is a very important right because I am a journalist. There’s always the old adage about the First Amendment being the first on the Bill of Rights for a reason.

It’s unfortunate that it took a scenario like this to bring a landmark First Amendment case before the Supreme Court, but the landslide decision the justices made affirmed what I believe in.

Time, place and manner restrictions are rarely enacted because the manner of restriction is very subjective.

It is hard to defend what the protesters display on their signs.

If the justices had drawn a line when it came to speech during funerals, where would the line have stopped with regard to free speech?

What Phelps and his cohorts do is completely legal. Justice Samuel Alito wrote in his dissenting opinion that “‘most if not all jurisdictions permit recovery in tort for the intentional infliction of emotional distress,” but also admitted it was “a very narrow tort with requirements that ‘are rigorous, and difficult to satisfy.'”

The court decided those requirements were not met. The group stands in public areas that happen to be outside military funerals and has a right to assemble.

They have done so at over 600 funerals. While the speech they utter is defamatory in nature, they are not directly slandering.

They are following the law and eight justices agreed with that. When he delivered the court’s opinion, Chief Justice John Roberts said, “such speech cannot be restricted simply because it is upsetting or arouses contempt.”

He also said the language “may fall short of refined social or political commentary, the issues they highlight … are matters of public import.”

I echo those sentiments and the seven other concurring opinions from the judges of the high court do too.

Events like this —  the story of the 1979 American Nazi Party march in Skokie, Ill., also comes to mind — show the most negative side of human nature.

However, it comes with the luxury of having a public forum of ideas available. Positive things, like the camaraderie of the Patriot Guard that goes to protect military funerals from the Westboro protesters, can come out of witnessing evils.