INTERVIEW: Military Funeral Protests - Justices side with Westboro Baptist Church

By Ryan Nobles - bio | email | facebook
Posted by Terry Alexander - email

RICHMOND, VA (WWBT) – The family of a fallen marine does not get the relief they are looking for from the U.S. Supreme Court. In an 8 to 1 decision, the court ruled that the first amendment protects the right of the Westboro Baptist Church to protest at military funerals. The family of Matthew Snyder had sued the church, claiming their protest caused undue mental anguish.

Our legal analyst Steve Benjamin joins us to discuss the impact of the decision.

Ryan Nobles: Steve, there's no question that this story elicits a strong opinions, we've asked the question about it on our facebook page and already, people have weighed in with a number of comments. They feel very strongly about this, but is this an example of the limits of our First Amendment and how even the most vile speech needs to be protected? At least that's what the Supreme Court said.

Steve Benjamin: I wouldn't use the word limits, Ryan, because I think no matter how much we might disagree with the content of the -- face it -- vile message that these folks were delivering. The emotion we should feel is some pride in the protection that our First Amendment provides. You know, we often hear the term and we often will say, as much as we might disagree with what you have to say, I'll fight to the death your right to say it. Well, this is the sort of case, Ryan, that tests our resolve because this was truly very emotional and some would say disgusting, vile language, but the Supreme Court held today that this language, the words used by this church in picketing this funeral were, indeed, entitled to First Amendment protection and they explain the reasons why. As a consequence, a multi-million-dollar judgment was set aside. They affirm that action. The reasons given by the court really go to the heart of the First Amendment and the court explained in its opinion today that the essence of self government is wide-ranging public debate about issues of public concern. And the court said that's exactly what was going on here. As much as people might disagree with the message of the church, it obviously dealt with matters of great public concern.

Ryan Nobles: Even though the way that they got this message across came across so offensive to so many people, and the words that they used were offensive. The court said that that is within the bounds of the First Amendment.

Steve Benjamin: A very important principle of free speech is that the government has no right to sensor what we say. They're allowed to regulate in terms of time and place and manner, but they can never prohibit a message because of the nature of its speech. And the court noted, look, if these folks had signs that said "God Bless America", there never would have been a lawsuit. It was the very content of the words that brought about this lawsuit and they said that's the one thing the government cannot do. The court also noted that the picketing was peaceful, you know, they weren't throwing rocks, they weren't inciting fights, and most importantly, that the picketing occurred in a public place alongside a public street. The Supreme Court reminded us that streets and sidewalks and parks are the very essence of public forums. It's where people go to communicate their ideas. These days, you know, it seems like almost everyone has access to the internet, but not everyone does. Not everybody has access to broadcast booths or printing presses, but everyone can go to the street if they have a message to convey.

Ryan Nobles: So okay.

Steve Benjamin: So no matter how vile the message, these folks are protected by the First Amendment.

Ryan Nobles: All right; a civics lesson from the high court.

Steve Benjamin: That's right.

Ryan Nobles: Thank you very much, Steve.

See the video at right for the full interview.

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