msnbc.com staff and news service reports
updated 3/2/2011 12:15:38 PM ET 2011-03-02T17:15:38

The Supreme Court ruled Wednesday that the First Amendment protects fundamentalist church members who mount attention-getting, anti-gay protests outside military funerals.

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The court voted 8-1 in favor of the Westboro Baptist Church of Topeka, Kan. The decision upheld an appeals court ruling that threw out a $5 million judgment to the father of a dead Marine who sued church members after they picketed his son's funeral.

Chief Justice John Roberts wrote the majority opinion for the court.

Justice Samuel Alito dissented.

It was a huge victory for a group whose antics have outraged many, including veterans groups.

Supreme Court rules controversial funeral protests are free speech

While the protests were painful, the majority wrote that the Constitution protects even hurtful speech on public issues.

"What Westboro said, in the whole context of how and where it chose to say it, is entitled to 'special protection' under the First Amendment," Roberts wrote, "and that protection cannot be overcome by a jury finding that the picketing was outrageous." 

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"Speech is powerful. 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."

Alito strongly disagreed. "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.

'Thank God for dead soldiers'
Matthew Snyder died in Iraq in 2006 and his body was returned to the United States for burial. Members of the Westboro Baptist Church, who have picketed military funerals for several years, decided to protest outside the Westminster, Md., church where Snyder's funeral was to be held.

The Rev. Fred Phelps and other family members who make up most of the Westboro Baptist Church have picketed many military funerals in their quest to draw attention to their view that U.S. deaths in Afghanistan and Iraq are God's punishment for the nation's tolerance of homosexuality.

They showed up with their usual signs, including "Thank God for dead soldiers," "You're Going to Hell," "God Hates the USA/Thank God for 9/11," and one that combined the U.S. Marine Corps motto, Semper Fi, with a slur against gay men.

Vote: Do you agree with the Supreme Court's decision?

“God promised dire outpourings of very painful wrath, and there’s nothing more painful than killing one of your children and that’s what’s going on in Iraq,” Fred Phelps told msnbc.com in an interview in 2006 . “That’s what we’re preaching and the forum of choice to deliver such a message, obviously, is the funeral of the kid that’s been blown to smithereens."

The church members drew counter-demonstrators, as well as media coverage and a heavy police presence to maintain order. The result was a spectacle that led to altering the route of the funeral procession.

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Several weeks later, Albert Snyder was surfing the Internet for tributes to his son from other soldiers and strangers when he came upon a poem on the church's website that attacked Matthew's parents for the way they brought up their son.

Soon after, Snyder filed a lawsuit accusing the Phelpses 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.

Forty-eight states, 42 U.S. senators and veterans groups sided with Snyder, asking the court to shield funerals from the Phelps family's "psychological terrorism."

While distancing themselves from the church's message, media organizations, including The Associated Press, urged the court to side with the Phelps family because of concerns that a victory for Snyder could erode speech rights.

Roberts described the court's holding as narrow, and in a separate opinion, Justice Stephen Breyer suggested in other circumstances, governments would not be "powerless to provide private individuals with necessary protection."

But in this case, Breyer said, it would be wrong to "punish Westboro for seeking to communicate its views on matters of public concern."

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Video: Supreme Court: Anti-gay funeral protests OK

  1. Closed captioning of: Supreme Court: Anti-gay funeral protests OK

    >>> good evening. they go to the funerals of americans who have been killed in action in iraq and afghanistan and they hold up signs saying things like "thank god for dead soldiers ," "god hates you" and "it's too late to pray." they do this in the name of religion. of course, what they do is an insult to religion. they are members of the westboro baptist church in kansas and they're the last thing a grief-stricken parent wants to see, but is what they're doing free speech ? do they deserve protection even if what we like to say is a free country . today the supreme court said yes, our constitution protects a lot of things including in this thing, hatred. it's where we begin our broadcast tonight with our justice correspondent pete williams at the court. pete, good evening.

    >> reporter: brian, this is a big victory for a group from kansas who believes america is morally flawed. while americans may feel the same way about the group, the constitution protects messages that society finds offensive. the courtsided with members of the tiny westboro kansas baptist church who have protested at hundreds of military funerals and claim that u.s. war deaths are god's punishment for the nation's acceptance of gay rights . when they showed up outside of a maryland church at the funeral of matthew snyder , a marine killed in iraq they carried signs that says thank god for dead soldiers and god hates you. that outraged his father who sued the group for emotional distress. the group demonstrated in a public place on issues of public concern and obeyed local laws, keeping them 1,000 feet from the church. writing for eight members of the court, chief justice john roberts said speech is powerful and it can stir people to action, move them to tears of both joy and sorrow, and as it here, inflict great pain, but he said, the government cannot react to that pain by punishing the speaker. today matthew snyder 's father reacted with disgust.

    >> eight justices doesn't gave the common sense god gave a goat. we can no longer bury our dead in this country with dignity.

    >> reporter: civil liberties groups supported the ruling.

    >> the court's decision properly and acknowledged the snyder 's family grief, but correctly held that the response to that grief cannot include abandoning core first amendment principles that protect even the most unpopular speech. today one of the protesters said the ruling gives them freshen couragement.

    >> we're telling you your stinking theater is on fire and we will continue to tell you that. we have not slowed down, thank god, and we will not.

    >> >> reporter: the court's single dissenter said the commitment to free debate is not a license for the vicious verbal a assault that the snyder family suffered. veterans groups denounced the ruling and said they'll urge counter demonstrations to blunt the impact of the kansas protesters.

    >> we just want to blank out and seal their message totally. hopefully if nobody hears them they'll go away.

    >> reporter: the court said the message can't be stopped and communities can't impose restrictions on protests outside funerals, something 44 states have already done.

    >> pete williams with an important day in washington. thanks.

Vote: Vote: Anti-gay funeral protests OK?