Protecting even disgusting speech

PROTECTING EVEN DISGUSTING SPEECH…. Free-speech rights are so much easier to appreciate when the speech isn’t disgusting. The Supreme Court reminded us this morning that the First Amendment makes no such distinction.

The First Amendment protects hateful protests at military funerals, the Supreme Court ruled on Wednesday in an 8-to-1 decision.

“Speech is powerful,” Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. wrote for the 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 went on, “we cannot react to that pain by punishing the speaker.” Instead, the national commitment to free speech, he said, requires protection of “even hurtful speech on public issues to ensure that we do not stifle public debate.” […]

Chief Justice Roberts used sweeping language culled from the First Amendment canon of foundational decisions in setting out the central place free speech plays in the constitutional structure. “Debate on public issues should be robust, uninhibited and wide-open,” he wrote, because “speech on public issues occupies the highest rung of the hierarchy of First Amendment values.”

The case stemmed from a lawsuit filed by Albert Snyder, whose son, Marine Lance Cpl. Matthew A. Snyder, died in Iraq. The monsters who make up the Westboro Baptist Church of Topeka, Kan. — to my mind, America’s most disgusting people — protested at the Snyder funeral. The father sued for intentional infliction of emotional distress and received a hefty sum from a jury.

Today’s ruling undoes that award. The Westboro Baptist Church’s members can’t threaten anyone, block access to the funeral, or disrupt the services, but as far as the eight-member majority of the Supreme Court is concerned, they can stand at a distance waving loathsome signs and chanting disgusting slogans.

The lone dissent came from Justice Samuel Alito, who argued unpersuasively that our civil liberties are not “a license for the vicious verbal assault that occurred in this case.”

I suspect all decent people are repulsed by this so-called church, but I have no doubt that the Supreme Court made the right call today.

As Adam Serwer noted this morning, “It’s one of those rulings that reminds you that at least on some very basic understandings of what ‘free speech,’ means, both conservative and moderate jurists on the court are on the same page: You don’t forfeit your First Amendment rights just by being an asshole.”