We wrote back on April 2, 2010 about some members of the Westboro Baptist Church of Topeka, Kansas who picketed and chanted hateful slogans near the 2006 Maryland funeral of a veteran of the Iraq war. Some of the signs displayed contained statements such as “Thank God for Dead Soldiers,” “Fags Doom Nations,” “America is Doomed,” “Priests Rape Boys,” and “You’re Going to Hell.”
The father of the deceased veteran sued the church and some of its members for intentional infliction of emotional distress, intrusion upon seclusion, and civil conspiracy. A federal jury awarded the father $2.9 million in compensatory damages and $8 million in punitive damages. The trial judge reduced the punitive damages award to $2.1 million. On appeal, the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals threw out the verdict, holding that the church and its members were exercising protected First Amendment speech rights. The court ordered the veteran’s father to pay court costs of $16,510.
On March 2, 2011, the U.S. Supreme Court agreed with the Fourth Circuit, holding that the church’s conduct constituted “speech” on a public issue and that the picketing was done peacefully in a public place, in compliance with the direction of local police officials, and was indeed protected by the U.S. Constitution. The court said that the church’s belief that God hates the U.S. for its tolerance of homosexuality, particularly in the military, and its condemnation of the Catholic Church for scandals involving priests, were matters of public, not private, concern, and that the Westboro church and its members were properly communicating their beliefs on those issues.
Justice Alito wrote a stinging dissenting opinion, noting that Westboro Baptist Church “launched a malevolent verbal attack” on the deceased veteran and his family, and deprived the veteran’s father of his right to bury his son in peace. Justice Alito concluded that the First Amendment does not give the Westboro church the right to “brutalize” the veteran’s father.
It should be noted that not too long after the funeral, Maryland passed a law imposing certain restrictions and limitations on picketing or demonstrating near a funeral. In its opinion, the Supreme Court did not, therefore, consider whether or not any such restrictions would pass constitutional muster.