In Westboro Baptist case, court upheld the law

October 07, 2011

In Raymond Novak's op-ed piece on the Supreme Court decision in the Snyder v. Phelps First Amendment case, he utterly misstates the 8-1 opinion issued by the court ("Juries on trial," Oct. 6). Mr. Novak claims that "the court found that the evidence was more than sufficient to support [Albert Snyder's] civil claim against the [Westboro Baptist] church," but that it was "unlikely that the jurors could put aside their own views in such a case."

In fact, the majority opinion mentions nothing of the sort. Chief Justice John Roberts, writing for the majority, notes that the Court of Appeals acted properly in ruling that the language on the protest signs "was entitled to First Amendment protection because those statements were on matters of public concern, were not provably false, and were expressed solely through hyperbolic rhetoric." Thus, the claim of intentional infliction of emotional distress was denied. The court further ruled that Mr. Snyder's claim of intrusion upon seclusion was not actionable because the protesters complied with all local ordinances, stayed well away from the funeral activities, and were not viewable from the mourners' vantage points.

Perhaps Mr. Novak was taking license in attributing language to the court that it did not articulate nor even attempt to address. If so, let him clarify that. Meanwhile, the ruling in Snyder v. Phelps reaffirmed what the Supreme Court has been finding since the First Amendment was adopted. As Justice William J. Brennan famously wrote in Texas v. Johnson, "If there is a bedrock principle underlying the First Amendment, it is that government may not prohibit the expression of an idea simply because society finds the idea itself offensive or disagreeable." And if a jury fails to understand that concept, it is up to the courts to correct it on appeal.

If — and it is a mighty big if — the court's decision in Snyder v. Phelps creates an unintended consequence such as that envisioned by Mr. Novak of putting juries on trial, it will be a deliberation for another day by another judicial body. There should not be, nor was there any, intrusion on the important free speech issue in Snyder v. Phelps that was ultimately decided narrowly and wisely by the court according to the rule of law.

Arthur Lapenotiere, Westminster

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