Supreme Court Case Regarding Pickets Could Weaken First Amendment Protections

Liberty Alerts, Liberty Counsel

Washington, DC – The case involving controversial protests at the funerals of fallen soldiers is raising concerns about the future of First Amendment protections for all Americans. Liberty Counsel is concerned about the effects this case could have on First Amendment rights and has filed an amicus brief with the U.S. Supreme Court, warning of the potential for serious harm to the First Amendment.

Sanctions such as the civil damages pose a significant threat to First Amendment freedoms by chilling the very kind of controversial speech our Founding Fathers sought to protect. Liberty Counsel does not endorse the message contained in the protesters’ signs and other communications and even expressly condemns the offensive tactics of Fred Phelps and the Westboro Baptist Church and the content of their rhetoric. However, Liberty Counsel stands with the Founders in supporting the right of protesters and other citizens to present messages of their choosing, even offensive messages, without the chilling effect of tort or other liability or governmental censure.

This case began in 2006 with Albert Snyder, a father of a fallen marine, whose funeral was picketed by Fred Phelps of the Westboro Baptist Church, which is known for picketing at funerals of men and women that have fallen in battle and shouting comments like, “Thank God for dead soldiers.” In this case, Phelps and his group were 1,000 feet away from the site of the funeral. Those attending the funeral did not know about the picket until they later read about it in the media. Upon learning of the picket, Snyder sued Phelps, citing a state law which holds protesters liable for damages that stem from speech deemed to be outrageous and which intentionally inflicts emotional distress. If Snyder wins this case against Phelps, then legitimate protests or speeches on public property could be stopped by those who disagree with the speaker. The result would harm all speech.

Mathew Staver, Founder of Liberty Counsel and Dean of Liberty University School of Law, commented: “Bad facts tend to make bad law. This case has bad facts, and we want to ensure the High Court will not use it to undermine the First Amendment. The First Amendment protects speech that makes our blood boil. The Constitution protects more than pleasant platitudes. If the Constitution only protected pleasing speech, then we would not need a right to free speech. Free speech is a double-edged sword. Either we all have the right to speak, or none of us has the right. Our right to speak does not depend on a benevolent ruler or an agreeable audience. We condemn the insensitivity of Fred Phelps, but we also affirm the right to free speech.”

Used with permission.

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