First Amendment Friday

by rocketmatter-admin March 4, 2011

Yesterday during our company stand up meeting, Ariel Jatib – one of our company’s co-founders – reminded us of a very important Supreme Court case that was decided this week.    (It does appear that there is important news happening that doesn’t directly involve the production of sitcoms or the personal lives of their actors.)

In Snyder v. Phelps, et al., our Supreme Court addressed certain First Amendment issues involved in the protesting activities of the Westboro Baptist Church. Specifically, the case dealt with the legal issues raised by the church’s protesting activities at the funeral of a deceased Marine, Lance Cpl. Matthew A. Snyder.

The church is known for – among other things – showing up to events like this Marine’s funeral and holding up radically inflammatory, confrontational signs.  The signs contain what most of us would concede to be extremely offensive, hurtful content.   That said, at their protests the church members are non-violent, they avoid the use of profanity (as “profanity” is customarily defined), and appear to take great care in abiding by local protest rules and regulations.   For example, the protestors stay the required number of feet away from the church where the funeral is being held.  The church also notifies local law enforcement in advance of their plans to protest.  However, their speech is highly charged, extremely controversial and was alleged to rise to the level of triggering civil liability via the intentional infliction of emotional distress.

In an 8-1 decision written by Chief Justice Roberts, the Court found for the church, essentially holding that speech made peacefully in a public space is protected, and not subject to civil liability, even if it causes psychological and emotional harm.

“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.  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.  That choice requires that we shield Westboro from tort liability for its picketing in this case.”

Justice Breyer filed a concurring opinion.  Justice Alito offered a sole, stinging dissent where he curiously used the abbreviation IIED in place of “intentional infliction of emotional distress.” (Students of language might point out the similarity between the “IIED” abbreviation and “IED“s – the common abbreviation for the terrible “improvised explosive devices” that repeatedly harm our troops.)

Regardless of our personal views about the decision or its rationale, the case provides a a great basis for discussion about the First Amendment, and will undoubtedly generate all sorts of crazy hypotheticals on Law School exams this spring.  Hopefully college professors and high school teachers will also do their parts in encouraging thoughtful debate about the First Amendment in their classrooms as well.

For the rest of us, the case is a great read, and a terrific way to spark discussion. For lawyers, it’s an especially good opportunity to introduce a young person to a line of Supreme Court cases that are fairly easy to grasp factually yet are anything but “easy” to resolve.    An important line of cases that affects how we live and interact with each other.

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