WASHINGTON — In a ringing endorsement of free speech with an outcome that almost no one liked, the Supreme Court said Wednesday that antigay protestors who picket funerals of U.S. soldiers with signs like "Thank God for Dead Soldiers" cannot be sued.
All but one justice sided with Westboro Baptist Church, which has stirred outrage with raucous demonstrations contending God is punishing the military for the nation's tolerance of homosexuality. The 8-1 decision ended a lawsuit by Albert Snyder, who sued church members for the emotional pain they caused by showing up at the funeral of his son, Lance Cpl. Matthew Snyder.
Justice Samuel Alito, the lone dissenter, said Snyder wanted only to "bury his son in peace." Instead, Alito said, the protesters "brutally attacked" Matthew Snyder to attract public attention. "Our profound national commitment to free and open debate is not a license for the vicious verbal assault that occurred in this case," he said.
The ruling, though, was in line with many earlier court decisions that said the First Amendment exists to protect robust debate on public issues and free expression, no matter how distasteful.
Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. wrote in his opinion for the court that two primary factors required a ruling in favor of the church group. First, he said, its speech was on matters of public concern. While the messages on the signs carried by its members "may fall short of refined social or political commentary," the chief justice wrote, "the issues they highlight — the political and moral conduct of the United States and its citizens, the fate of our nation, homosexuality in the military and scandals involving the Catholic clergy — are matters of public import."
Second, the members of the church "had the right to be where they were." They were picketing on a public street 1,000 feet from the site of the funeral; they complied with the law and with instructions from the police, and they protested quietly and without violence.
"Any distress occasioned by Westboro's picketing turned on the content and viewpoint of the message conveyed," Roberts wrote, "rather than any interference with the funeral itself."
All of that means, the chief justice wrote, that the protesters' speech "cannot be restricted simply because it is upsetting or arouses contempt."
Roberts suggested that a proper response to hurtful protests is general laws creating buffer zones around funerals and the like, rather than empowering juries to punish unpopular speech. Maryland, where the protest took place, now has such a law, as do, the chief justice said, 43 other states (including Florida) and the federal government.
Albert Snyder's reaction, at a news conference in York, Pa.: "My first thought was, eight justices don't have the common sense God gave a goat." He added, "We found out today we can no longer bury our dead in this country with dignity."
Snyder filed a lawsuit in 2006 accusing the church's pastor, the Rev. Fred Phelps, and his family members — who make up most of the Westboro Baptist Church — of intentionally inflicting emotional distress. He won $11 million at trial, later reduced by a judge to $5 million.
The federal appeals court in Richmond, Va., threw out the verdict and said the Constitution shielded the church members from liability. The Supreme Court agreed.
Synder said it's now possible he will have to pay the Phelpses around $100,000, which they are seeking in legal fees, because he lost the lawsuit.
Military families and their advocates were disheartened.
"It is a sad moment for families of America's fallen military," said Ami Neiberger-Miller, a spokeswoman for TAPS, the Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors, an emotional support group for military families.
The church picketed her brother Christopher's funeral in Gainesville in 2007. He was a 22-year-old Army specialist killed while serving in Iraq.
"Many of our families have been brutalized by this group, often only days after they found their love ones have died," Neiberger-Miller said.
The fundamentalist church, based in Topeka, Kan., has staged several protests in the Tampa Bay area.
Forty-eight states, 42 U.S. senators and veterans groups had asked the court to shield funerals from the Phelps family's "psychological terrorism."
While distancing themselves from the church's message, 21 media organizations urged the court to side with the Phelps family because of concerns that a victory for Snyder could erode speech rights.
Information from McClatchy-Tribune, Associated Press and New York Times was used in this article.