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Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli was right to not join with other states in the case between a family whose son was killed while serving in the military and the nut case Fred Phelps and his small band of followers from Westboro Baptist Church in Kansas.
Phelps and his crew make a habit of attending the funerals of military personnel and hurling vile and reprehensible statements at the families and friends gathered to remember their loved ones. Such was the case at the funeral of Matthew Snyder, a soldier killed in Iraq. His father, Albert Snyder, took Phelps to court. As despicable as the speech was that spewed from those picketers on that day, it was still constitutionally protected under the First Amendment. The Supreme Court, in an 8-1 decision, made that clear last week.
“The First Amendment is designed to protect ideas, even ideas that upset, that inflame, or that the majority of the country would find offensive. It protects the rights of speakers we agree with, but also – and more importantly – it protects those speakers we would condemn,” Cuccinelli stated after the decision was handed down.
In the decision, Chief Justice Roberts wrote for the Court: “Westboro believes that America is morally flawed; many Americans might feel the same about Westboro. Westboro’s funeral picketing is certainly hurtful and its contribution to public discourse may be negligible. But Westboro addressed matters of public import on public property, in a peaceful manner, in full compliance with the guidance of local officials. The speech was indeed planned to coincide with Matthew Snyder’s funeral, but did not itself disrupt that funeral, and Westboro’s choice to conduct its picketing at that time and place did not alter the nature of its speech.”
The Court, in its decision, acknowledged that speech is a powerful tool. “It can stir people to action, move them to tears of both joy and sorrow, and—as it did here—inflict great pain,” Roberts wrote. “On the facts before us, we cannot react to that pain by punishing the speaker. As a Nation we have chosen a different course—to protect even hurtful speech on public issues to ensure that we do not stifle public debate. That choice requires that we shield Westboro from tort liability for its picketing in this case.”
Cuccinelli acknowledged that his decision to not join other states in the case against Westboro was not popular.
“I absolutely deplore the vile and despicable acts of Fred Phelps and his followers,” Cuccinelli stated last week. “I also greatly sympathize with the Snyder family and all families who have experienced the hatefulness of those people. But the consequences of this case had to be considered beyond what would happen just to the Westboro followers.”
What could have happened, had the Court ruled differently, is that a precedent could have been set against valid exercises of free speech. That could have had serious consequences down the road.
“If protestors – whether political, civil rights, pro-life, or environmental – said something that offended the object of the protest to the point where that person felt harmed, the protestors could successfully be sued,” Cuccinelli noted, adding that Virginia has a statute which provides for jail time for those who willfully disrupt a funeral or memorial service to the point of preventing or interfering with its orderly conduct.
It was a proper stance to take, even though, in this case, the fact that it benefits Westboro makes it impossible to feel good about.