Justices uphold funeral protests

Antimilitary pickets protected, court says; Coakley to review effect on Mass. law

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By Peter Schworm
Globe Staff / March 3, 2011

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The US Supreme Court yesterday ruled that virulent, antigay protests outside military funerals are a form of free speech protected by the First Amendment, to the dismay of military families who argued that mourners should be allowed to conduct services in peace.

The decision disappointed Massachusetts officials, who had asked the court to rule against the protesters and protect the privacy of mourners. And it immediately threw into doubt a 1978 Massachusetts law that bars picketing within 500 feet of a funeral service. Dozens of states have similar laws.

“We respect the First Amendment rights of our citizens, but we also believe that, consistent with those principles, families have rights to honor their loved ones free from disruptive and harmful protests,’’ Massachusetts Attorney General Martha Coakley said in a statement yesterday. Coakley’s office said it will review the court’s decision to determine its impact on state law.

The Supreme Court ruled 8 to 1 in favor of Westboro Baptist Church of Topeka, Kan., which is known for picketing military funerals, as well as other public gatherings, with inflammatory messages such as “Thank God for Dead Soldiers.’’ Church members say they believe God hates the United States because of its tolerance of homosexuality, and they see military deaths as a form of divine retribution for the nation’s sins.

Chief Justice John Roberts, writing for the majority, said protest cannot be restricted “simply because it is upsetting or arouses contempt.’’

“Speech is powerful,’’ Roberts wrote. “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.’’

The court case began when the father of a slain Marine whose Maryland funeral was picketed by church members sued for infliction of emotional distress. Albert Snyder had been awarded $11 million in damages by a federal jury after Westboro Baptist members demonstrated outside the funeral of his son, Matthew; the award had been overturned by a federal appeals court.

Roberts wrote that yesterday’s ruling was narrow and limited to the specific facts of the Snyder case. He noted that in some situations, the location of protests can be regulated, such as by requiring buffer zones between protesters and an abortion clinic.

In this case, Roberts said, protesters “had the right to be where they were.’’ The picketing outside the Snyder funeral had taken place on public land, about 1,000 feet from the church where the funeral was held, and did not disturb the memorial service, Roberts said.

“Westboro’s funeral picketing is certainly hurtful, and its contribution to public discourse may be negligible,’’ he wrote. “But Westboro addressed matters of public import on public property, in a peaceful manner, in full compliance with the guidance of local officials.’’

The lone dissenting justice, Samuel Alito, called the church’s protest a “vicious verbal assault’’ that should not be constitutionally protected.

“Mr. Snyder wanted what is surely the right of any parent who experiences such an incalculable loss: to bury his son in peace,’’ he wrote. “But respondents, members of the Westboro Baptist Church, deprived him of that elementary right.’’

Westboro Baptist members have protested a variety of gatherings in Massachusetts over the years, often drawing controversy and counterdemonstrations. In 2005, church members picketed outside the funeral of Christopher Piper, an Army soldier from Marblehead. Colleen Piper, the mother of Piper’s children, decried the court decision yesterday, saying protesters should not be allowed to interfere with such solemn occasions.

“It’s not about rights; it’s about right and wrong,’’ Piper said. “There’s a line, and it has to be drawn.’’

Piper said the presence of the church members, across the street from the church, was an affront that brought “pain upon pain’’ to mourners.

“They are monsters,’’ she said of the protesters. “They are a disgrace to this country.’’

But others backed the court’s decision, saying that even hateful fringe groups have the right to express their views.

“They are reprehensible,’’ said Ted Mulvehill Jr., the veterans agent in Norwood. “But this is why guys like us raised our right hand and swore to uphold and protect the Constitution. It protects everyone, no matter how misguided they might be.’’

Civil libertarians also voiced support for the court’s decision.

“The court’s decision properly and respectfully acknowledges the Snyder family’s grief,’’ said Steven R. Shapiro, legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union. “But it correctly holds that the response to that grief cannot include the abandonment of core First Amendment principles designed to protect even the most unpopular speech on matters of public concern.’’

The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press and 21 news organizations had filed an amicus brief urging the court to protect the speech rights. The news organizations included the Associated Press, Bloomberg L.P., Dow Jones & Co., National Public Radio, and The New York Times Co., which owns The Boston Globe.

“This case tests the mettle of even the most ardent free speech advocates, because the underlying speech is so repugnant,’’ the news media brief argued. “However, the particular facts of this case should not be used to fashion a First Amendment exemption for offensive speech.’’

Peter Schworm can be reached at