3:10 p.m.: Margie J. Phelps, who argued the case for Westboro, said the church is planning a celebratory service in Topeka this evening to thank God for the court ruling.
"We've been saying all these years that our actions are lawful, and now there is no doubt about that," said Phelps, who described the opinion as "10 times better than anything I'd ever imagined."
The court "made it clear that someone saying your feelings are hurt cannot trump the right for anybody to be in the public debate," Phelps said. She also believes the ruling sounds the "death knell to almost all the laws the states have passed" restricting
"They can no longer pretend that people going to a public funeral are a captive audience to peaceful picketers," she said.
She had a message for Albert Snyder: "We thank you for putting a megaphone to the mouth of this church."
She added, "His anguish doesn't come from us. It comes from his God, and his conscience. He went down this foolish trail, and it's done. Now, go get right with God."
Several people have noted that this decision came out one day before the five-year anniversary of Lance Cpl. Matthew A. Snyder's death. The 20-year-old, of Westminster, Md., died March 3, 2006, in a Humvee crash in Al Qaim, Iraq.
He served with the Combat Service SupportGroup-1, 1st Marine Logistics Group, Marine Expeditionary Force in Iraq.
Kansas Attorney General Derek Schmidt, whose predecessor Steve Six had filed an amicus brief in the case supporting Albert Snyder, released a statement, saying the decision is "a disappointment for Kansans who have endured for so long the embarrassment brought upon our state by the shameful conduct of the Westboro Baptist Church."
He extended sympathy to the Snyder family, and noted that the court's decision was "narrow."
"The court made clear that its decision today does not disturb the funeral privacy laws enacted in many states, including Kansas, that create a zone of privacy in which bereaved families may grieve."
2 p.m.: Final excerpts from Alito's dissension:
Alito took note that the church garners almost as much free publicity by threatening protests and then canceling them. He recalled one such incident concerning the five Amish girls killed by a gunman in 2006 in Nickel Mines, Lancaster County.
He said the church's announcement it would protest at the lance corporal's funeral "guaranteed (it) would be transformed into a raucous media event and began the wounding process."
Alito also disagreed with the majority decision that the church's anti-gay, anti-military message was not a personal attack on the dead Marine and his family. He said the picketers signs could lead "a reasonable bystander" to think that Matthew Snyder was gay.
Alito said he also considered the church's online diatribe, "The Burden of Marine Lance Cpl. Matthew A. Snyder." He noted the court did not examine the writing because it was not brought up in Snyder's petition. Alito said the tirade clearly and directly attacked the fallen Marine and his parents because Matthew Snyder was Catholic and a member of the military.
He said the majority's concern that the protest occurred in a public place should not be enough to "preclude" liability for intentional infliction of emotional distress.
"There is no reason why a public street in close proximity to the scene of a funeral should be regarded as a free-fire zone" where language that is not protected by the First Amendment is "shielded from liability."
Alito also contends the majority's opinion that new state laws will provide protection from Westboro's type of protest is misguided. He said the church's actions which led to Snyder's civil suit "complied with the new Maryland law regulating funeral picketing."
He said "the significance of these new laws ... illustrates the fundamental point that funerals are unique events at which special protection against emotional assaults is in order."
"Allowing family members to have a few hours of peace without harassment does not undermine public debate."
"In order to have a society in which public issues can be openly and vigorously debated, it is not necessary to allow the brutalization of innocent victims ..."
1:40 p.m.: Another chunk from Alito's dissension:
Alito also took note of the church's "well-practiced strategy for attracting media attention."
"On the morning of Matthew Snyder's funeral, (church members) could have chosen to stage their protest at countless locations.
"They could have picketed the United States Capitol, the White House, the Supreme Court, the Pentagon, or any of the more than 5,600 military recruiting stations in this country.
"They could have returned to the Maryland State House or the United States Naval Academy, where they had been the day before.
"They could have selected any public road where pedestrians are allowed. (There are more than 4,000,000 miles of public roads in the United States.)
"They could have staged their protest in a public park. (There are more than 20,000 public parks in this country.)
"They could have chosen any Catholic church where no funeral was taking place.(There are nearly 19,000 Catholic churches in the United States.)
"But of course, a small group picketing at any of these locations would have probably gone unnoticed.
"The Westboro Baptist Church, however, has devised a strategy that remedies this problem. As the Court notes, church members have protested at nearly 600 military funerals. They have also picketed the funerals of police officers, firefighters and the victims of natural disasters, accidents and shocking crimes.
"And in advance of these protests, they issue press releases to ensure that their protests will attract public attention. This strategy works because it is expected (the church members) verbal assaults will wound the family and friends of the deceased and because the media is irresistibly drawn to the sight of persons who are visibly in grief.
"The more outrageous the funeral protest, the more publicity the Westboro Baptist Church is able to obtain."
1:10 p.m.: Margie Phelps of Westboro, who argued the case in October before the Supreme Court, said the outcome reflected proper evaluation of the law and divine inspiration, according to a report in the Topeka Capital-Journal.
"We had two things in the bank," she said. "We follow the law, and God holds the hearts of kings in his hands."
1:05 p.m.: Also from Alito:
He noted the church "long ago abandoned" any defense that Snyder did not suffer any emotional injury from their actions or that their message was not "so outrageous in character and so extreme in degree as to go beyond all possible bounds of decency and to be regarded as atrocious and utterly intolerable in a civilized community."
"Instead, they maintained that the First Amendment gave them license to engage in such conduct. They are wrong," Alito wrote.
Citing case law, Alito said, "Personal abuse is not in any proper sense communication of information or opinion safeguarded by the Constitution."
12:45 p.m.: More on Alito's dissenting opinion:
Alito said he recognized the church members' Constitutional rights to their opinions and noted the First Amendment gives them "almost limitless opportunities to express their views" in writing, public speaking, recordings, petitions, television and radio appearances, and through the Internet.
And he said he agreed that they "may express their views in terms that are 'uninhibited,' 'vehement' and 'caustic.'"
But Alito wrote, that does not mean "they may intentionally inflict severe emotional injury on private persons at a time of intense emotional sensitivity by launching vicious verbal attacks that make no contribution to public debate."
12:35 p.m.: Justice Samuel Alito cast the lone dissenting opinion. He argued that "our profound national commitment to free and open debate is not a license for the vicious verbal assault that occurred in this case."
Alito's opinion is that Albert Snyder "is not a public figure. He is simply a parent whose son ....was killed in Iraq. Mr. Snyder wanted what is surely the right of any parent who experiences such an incalculable loss: to bury his son in peace.
"But ...members of the Westboro Baptist Church deprived him of that elementary right."
Alito found that the church prefaced their protest at the funeral by issuing press releases that "turned Matthew's funeral into a tumultuous media event."
He said the church members then approached the funeral as closely as they could without breaking the law and "launched a malevolent verbal attack on Matthew and his family at a time of acute emotional vulnerability.
"As a result, Albert Snyder suffered severe and lasting emotional injury."
Alito said he could not agree with the court's decision that the church's First Amendment rights allow them "to brutalize Mr. Snyder."
12:11 p.m.: Relying on prior case law, the court said, "If there is a bedrock principle underlying the First Amendment, it is that the government may not prohibit the expression of an idea simply because society finds the idea itself offensive or disagreeable.
"Indeed, 'the point of all speech protection ... is to shield just those choices of content that in someone's eyes are misguided, or even hurtful.'"
The court also held that "insulting and even outrageous" speech must be tolerated "to provide adequate 'breathing space' to the freedoms protected by the First Amendment."
The court said it set aside the jury's verdict because the church has "special protection" under the First Amendment in light of "how and where" it chose to deliver its message.
12:10 p.m.: Considering Snyder's "captive audience" argument, the court found that "Westboro stayed well away from the memorial service. Snyder could see no more than the tops of the signs when driving to the funeral."
"Our holding today is narrow. The reach of our opinion here is limited by the particular facts before us."
The court recognized that "Westboro believes that America is morally flawed (and that) many Americans might feel the same about Westboro.
"Westboro's funeral picketing is certainly hurtful and its contribution to public discourse may be negligible."
12:05 p.m.: Considering the facts of the case, the court ruled Westboro protested peacefully on public property, did not disrupt the funeral and, while the protest coincided with Snyder's funeral, the church's anti-American, anti-gay message was no different from its previous protests.
"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 . . . liability for its picketing in this case."
11:50 a.m.: Here are some more details from the high court's opinion:
"Westboro's choice to convey its views in conjunction with Matthew Snyder's funeral made the expression of (their) views particularly hurtful to many, especially to Matthew's father." The court ruled the "applicable legal term - emotional distress -fails to capture fully the anguish Westboro's choice added to Mr. Snyder's already incalculable grief."
But the court also held that "Westboro conducted its picketing peacefully on matters of public concern at a public place adjacent to a public street." The court said such public protests hold a "special position in terms of First Amendment protection."
Citing prior case law, the court held that "public streets (are) the archetype of a traditional public forum," and that from "'time out of mind' public streets and sidewalks have been used for public assembly and debate."
The court noted that "Westboro's choice of where and when" to protest "is not beyond the government's regulatory reach," adding that, since Snyder's funeral, Maryland has enacted legislation restricting protesting at funerals and that the court itself had approved the requirement of a "buffer zone" outside of abortion clinics.
"Simply put, the church members had a right to be where they were. Westboro alerted local authorities to its funeral protest and fully complied with police guidance on where the picketing could be staged. The picketing was conducted under police supervision some 1,000 feet from the church, out of the sight of those at the church. The protest was not unruly; there was no shouting, profanity, or violence."
But the court also recognized it was the content of the church's speech that caused "any distress."
It held that a "group of parishioners standing at the very spot where Westboro stood, holding signs that said 'God Bless America' and 'God Loves You,' would not have been subjected to (legal) liability.
"It was what Westboro said that exposed it to (legal) damages."
11:45 a.m.: Sean Summers, Albert Snyder's attorney, said at his York office that Snyder is in a car right now and hadn't yet read the decision, so Summers was reading parts to him over the phone.
"Obviously, it's not the decision he wanted," Summers said of Snyder.
A news conference will be held this afternoon, but not before 3 p.m., Summers said.
11:20 p.m.: Here are some details from the high court's opinion:
"The First Amendment shields Westboro from ... liability for its picketing in this case."
Albert Snyder's right to privacy was not invaded, the court ruled. "Westboro stayed well away from the memorial service, Snyder could see no more than the tops of the picketers' signs, and there is no indication that the picketing interfered with the funeral service itself," the opinion states.
The court also held that Westboro's signs related to a matter of public interest, which is defined as "relating to any matter of political, social, or other concern to the community."
The justices held that, although Snyder claimed the church's hate-filled signs were directed specifically at his deceased son, "the fact that Westboro spoke to connection with a funeral, however, cannot by itself transform the nature of Westboro's speech."
York, PA - The Supreme Court has ruled that the First Amendment protects fundamentalist church members who mount attention-getting, anti-gay protests outside military funerals.
The court voted 8-1 today in favor of the Westboro Baptist Church of Topeka, Kan. The decision upheld an appeals court ruling that threw out a $5 million judgment to Albert Snyder of Spring Garden Township, father of slain Marine Lance Cpl. Matthew Snyder, who sued church members after they picketed his son's funeral.
Chief Justice John Roberts wrote the opinion for the court. Justice Samuel Alito dissented.
"What Westboro said, in the whole context of how and where it chose to say it, is entitled to 'special protection' under the First Amendment," Roberts wrote, "and that protection cannot be overcome by a jury finding that the picketing was outrageous."
The case has drawn significant attention from court-watchers, First Amendment hawks and others because of its potential impact on laws governing speech, protest, religion and privacy.
Today's ruling was nearly five years in the making.
Snyder sued the Rev. Fred Phelps and his Westboro Baptist Church in 2006, alleging church members violated his family's right to privacy and defamed Snyder's son, Marine Lance Cpl. Matthew Snyder, on their website.
Members of Phelps' small church in Topeka, Kansas, had protested 1,000 feet outside Matthew's military funeral in Westminster, Md., holding signs such as "God hates dead soldiers."
Snyder's attorneys told the high court that the church members' freedom of speech ended where it conflicted with Snyder's freedom to participate in his son's funeral.
The Phelpses have maintained they have a right to spread their anti-gay message through protests, including those staged at private funerals.
They also contend that Albert Snyder is a public figure because he voluntarily gave media interviews after his son's death in Iraq criticizing the war. As a public figure, Snyder would not meet the standard for the intentional infliction of emotional distress verdict he seeks.
Last summer, attorneys general from 48 states signed onto legal briefs supporting Snyder in his case against Phelps. First Amendment scholars backed Phelps, saying a decision by the court in Snyder's favor would curtail free speech.
Justices heard oral arguments in the case Oct. 6.
· Annotated version of court's decision. Key points of decision are highlighted for quick access.
· Listen to the arguments in Snyder v. Phelps
· Annotated transcript of Supreme Court arguments
· Special section on the case.
· Related documents: scroll to 'Snyder v. Phelps'
· Read more reaction.
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Historic cases linked to York County