Lawyers often comment that bad facts quite often lead to bad law. On the other hand, there are ocassions when the proverbial blind squirrel finds the proverbial nut in the proverbial forest. Hence, sometimes bad facts can make good law for others.
The Westboro Baptist Church is infamous for its bigoted, homophobic views. As a result, it has taken it upon itself to picket the funerals of brave American men and women who have died in the line of duty in the ongoing military conflicts abroad.
The parents of one fallen soldier sued the Church when it picketed the funeral of their son with signs displaying vile, insulting messages. The parents obtained a judgment against the Church in the millions of dollars for, among other things, intentionally inflicting emotional distress upon the family. The Church appealed claiming its actions were protected by the First Amendment.
The Supreme Court agreed with the Church.
The Court emphasized the protection of speech on matters of “public concern” is at the heart of the First Amendment. This is particularly so when matters of public concern are expressed in public places near public streets.
Most important, the Court reiterated that free speech cannot be restricted simply because it is upseting or even contemptible.
If there is a bedrock principle underlying the First Amendment, it is that the government may not prohibit the expression of an idea simply because society finds the idea itself offensive or disagreeable….Indeed, the point of all speech protection is to shiled just those choices of content that in someone’s eyes are misguided or even hurtful.
While I disagree with the abusive, inconsiderate tactics engaged in by the Church in this case, I can’t but whole-heartedly support the conclusion reached by the Court. After all, employees often use the picket as a weapon when protesting unfair employer conduct. If the Church’s outrageous conduct can be protected by the First Amendment, then it only strengthens the ability of workers to take peaceful action against their employers.