Hard cases make bad law. Fortunately the Supreme Court didn’t have a hard case on its hands when the father of a dead Marine appealed a lower court ruling tossing out a five million dollar verdict against the pastor of Westboro Baptist Church for intentional infliction of emotional distress. Westboro Baptist Church had staged a duly-permitted protest in the vicinity of the funeral held for the Marine. In it, they claimed the Marine died because God was punishing the United States for its acceptance of homosexuality, as was their standard shtick. It was a legal protest. There was no incitation to violence. The protest did not imperil public safety. The only objection was to the content of the protest. Content, especially in the nature of a political opinion, is precisely what the First Amendment is specifically intended to protect.
It reflects some measure of wisdom in our society that most people—even Supreme Court jurists—understand that the prescription for stupid and offensive speech is allowing stupid and offensive speech. Let the speech flounder or flourish in the marketplace of ideas. Prohibiting speech that offends the sensibilities of the majority provides it the only poignancy and legitimacy it could otherwise ever hope to have. Most people just ignore protests and protesters anyway, which is probably why Westboro Baptist attempted to be so outrageous. John Mayer understands the predicament faced when trying to publicize stupid ideas, from Belief:
Is there anyone who
Ever remembers changing their mind from
The paint on a sign?
Is there anyone who really recalls
Ever breaking rank at all
For something someone yelled real loud one time
So this case was easy, if mostly a waste of time. Why take a case from a lower court only to uphold its ruling? Did any reasonable legal scholar believe the Supreme Court was so daft that it would contort logic and do the mental gymnastics necessary to find precedential justification for overturning the lower-court ruling? The last time the Court did such a thing in a case of broad national importance was when it decided the Constitution provided within its penumbra of rights, the right for a woman to abort a fetus. It has been backpedaling ever since. Perhaps the Court took the case just to show it still understands the manner with which it erred in 1973.
The Court remains mostly irrelevant. Which is how things should be and stay. Two hundred years of constitutional interpretations should by now make questions of constitutionality rote rules-applying exercises.
The case is Snyder v. Phelps, and can be found here.