The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in favor of Westboro Baptist Church protesters, and a University of Missouri Law Professor says that ruling was correct.
University of Missouri Law Professor Chris Wells says there was no evidence of a physical disruption by the protesters, so the free speech rights had to be upheld. Wells says the ruling does show a new willingness to clarify the importance of protecting debate on matters of public concern even if they cause emotional distress to private individuals.
Wells says she does believe the court will look at what might be an appropriate buffer zone, just as it says abortion protestors at medical clinics cannot come within 36 feet of the clinic and cannot come within eight feet of patients entering or exiting the building.
A Maryland father had sued the church, saying that they had inflicted emotional pain as the family buried its son who had been killed in Iraq.
But Wells says the court could not find that the protesters’ intent was to inflict damage on an individual or group, that it was simply spreading its message, no matter how offensive.
Wells says the opinion handed down by the Supreme Court has energized Fred Phelps and the Westboro Baptist Church, which says its planning even more protests. Because of that, she expects more lawsuits, and expects the court will keep analyzing whether restricting protests is constitutional.
Several attempts by municipalities and legislators to ban the protests have been struck down by the courts.
The Missouri legislature has crafted a bill that would impose a 500 foot separation.
Wells is the Enoch H. Crowder professor of law at the University of Missouri School of Law and a leading expert on funeral protests and freedom of speech cases.
“The mere dislike of a group of people and what they are doing and saying is not enough to limit free speech,” Wells says. “On the facts associated with the Snyder case, there is really no way you can regulate this kind of speech consistent with First Amendment principles, no matter how hateful it is.”
The proposed restrictions, and subsequent lawsuits, stem from funerals in which protesters stand on public property near the location of the services and spread an antigay message that included the belief that God was punishing America for the tolerance of homosexuals by killing soldiers.
Wells says a critical aspect of the Court’s decision involved the fact that the protesters addressed a matter of public concern — “Thus, their right to free speech cannot be hindered as long as they did not engage in actions that physically disrupted the funeral or harassed mourners.”
“Most offensive speech decisions are pretty evenly split, but the lopsided nature of this decision suggests that the court is concerned about potential abuse of intentional infliction of emotional distress as a cause of action for attacking free speech,” Wells says. “However, they clearly leave open the possibility of upholding time, place and manner restrictions. I believe this funeral protest statute issue will be revisited eventually.”