The Supreme Court will hear oral arguments today in a case that’s sure to have monumental repercussions on First Amendment rights.
For those of you unfamiliar with the case, on March 10, 2006 members of the Kansas-based Westboro Baptist Church protested outside the funeral of Matthew A. Snyder, a Marine who died serving in Iraq. The protesters held signs that read, “God hates fags” and “Thanks God for dead soldiers,” among other hateful things.
The Snyder family pursued legal action against the church and was initially awarded damages in the amount of $10,900,000 by a federal jury. However, the verdict was subsequently overturned on First Amendment grounds by a federal appeals court on September 24, 2009. As if that wasn’t bad enough the court also ordered the Snyder family to pay the Westboro Baptist Church’s legal fees in the amount of $16,000, a decision characterized by the Snyder family’s lawyer as “adding insult to injury.” “Marine’s father ordered to pay Westboro’s court costs”.
The Supreme Court has ruled in the past that there are limitations to the First Amendment’s guarantee to freedom of speech, most notably in the 1942 case Chaplinsky v. State of New Hampshire. That case centered on a defendant who was charged with violating a New Hampshire statue that prohibited the use of “any offensive, derisive, or annoying” words to persons “lawfully in any street or public place” after he allegedly yelled “You are a God-damned racketeer and a damned Fascist” to a town marshal.
The Court unanimously held that the statue did not violate the First Amendment. In the opinion, Justice Frank Murphy wrote:
There are certain well-defined and narrowly limited classes of speech, the prevention and punishment of which have never been thought to raise any constitutional problem. These include the lewd and obscene, the profane, the libelous, and the insulting or “fighting” words those which by their very utterance inflict injury or tend to incite an immediate breach of the peace. It has been well observed that such utterances are no essential part of any exposition of ideas, and are of such slight social value as a step to truth that any benefit that may be derived from them is clearly outweighed by the social interest in order and morality.
I for one couldn’t agree more. While I’m all for freedom of speech one can’t yell, “Fire!” in a crowded room and later claim protection under the law when people get hurt. However, today the Court is a little more ideologically divided and the doctrines set out in Chaplinsky v. State of New Hampshire can be overturned in the coming case ahead.
Baltimore Sun. March 29, 2010. http://www.baltimoresun.com/news/maryland/carroll/bal-protest0329,0,3866909.story.
 NH.’s Offensive Conduct law (chap. 378, para. 2 of the NH. Public Laws).
Chaplinsky v. State of New Hampshire, 315 U.S. 568 (1942)