The Westboro crew showed up at the funeral of Lance Corporal Matthew Snyder, a 20-year-old Marine who was killed in Iraq in 2006, with their "God Hates Fags" and "Thank God for Dead Soldiers." They picketed on public property about 1,000 feet from the church where Snyder's funeral was held, and broke no local laws. Snyder's father sued them for intentional infliction of emotional distress and defamation, arguing that their chants and signs were verbal assaults rather than protected political speech.
Surprisingly—at least to those of who've seen the Court marching steadily rightward—Chief Justice John Roberts and seven of his colleagues disagreed, ruling that Westboro can't be sued for picketing "peacefully on matters of public concern at a public place."
The placards read "God Hates the USA/Thank God for 9/11," "America is Doomed," "Don't Pray for the USA," "Thank God for IEDs," "Fag Troops," "Semper Fi Fags," "God Hates Fags," "Maryland Taliban," "Fags Doom Nations," "Not Blessed Just Cursed," "Thank God for Dead Soldiers," "Pope in Hell," "Priests Rape Boys," "You're Going to Hell," and "God Hates You." While these messages may fall short of refined social or political commentary, 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.
May fall short! The Court has been uncharacteristically rational lately. Just yesterday, it unanimously ruled that corporations have no claim to "personal privacy" under the Freedom of Information Act, shutting down an attempt by AT&T to essentially neuter the FOIA. A lot of Court watchers had worried that, given its deference to corporate rights in Citizens United, it would go the other way.
The only justice who dissented from the Westboro opinion was Samuel Alito, who, in the course of explaining why Westboro should be liable for damages over the protests, even discovered a new constitutional right: "Mr. Snyder wanted what is surely the right of any parent who experiences such an incalculable loss: to bury his son in peace."
To those keeping score at home: There is no constitutional right to reproductive health services, because George Washington never actually wrote down "free abortions on demand" on parchment paper back in 1789. But when Alito gets upset about speech he doesn't like, rights abound.
[Image via Getty]