Newspapers are generally in the forefront of free speech issues; along with trying to keep government meetings open and accessible to the public, first amendment rights usually are pretty sacrosanct in the newspaper business. Yet as the Supreme Court pondered the case of Kansas’ Westboro Baptist Church a few weeks ago -- those are the kooks who show up at military funerals with all sorts of distasteful protest signs -- we had settled into a feeling of, “If the justices can find a way out of this without allowing those horrid people a right to spew their venom, we’ll be fine with that.”
That’s not what happened, of course. In a nearly unanimous decision, the High Court ruled that no matter how onerous the methods of Westboro members might be, they still have a right to express their opinions. “Speech is powerful,” Chief Justice John Robert wrote for the 8-1 majority. “It can stir people to action, move them to tears of both joy and sorrow, and -- as it did here -- inflict great pain.” But under the First Amendment, he argued, “we cannot react to that pain by punishing the speaker”
The case arose from a protest by the Westboro members at the funeral of a Marine who had died in Iraq. As usual, church members carried their disgusting signs such as “America is Doomed” and “God Hates Fags.” Westboro members say they are decrying the growing acceptance of homosexuality in the United States and contend God is punishing American soldiers for what they see as a long slide into immorality.
The court ruled the protestors had a right to be where they were, about 1,000 feet from the site of the funeral, and that they complied with instructions from the police. Therefore, justices found, they had a right to voice their opinions though it might be “upsetting or arouse contempt.”
We thought that would be the case, but like some others, we hoped the justices would be able to wiggle out of First Amendment rights through some legal loophole. After all, listening to Westboro members leaves a vile taste in our mouths, bile that doesn’t go away quickly. But had the court not allowed them the right to speak, it would have opened a whole new assault on the rights of any of us to express our opinions. We respect the decision, but we take no joy in it.