Oct 062010
 October 6, 2010  Posted by  Court, Featured News

Lyle Denniston has another  insightful analysis and commentary on SCOTUSBlog over today’s oral arguments:

When the Supreme Court meets in private Friday to discuss Snyder v. Phelps, a profound question will hang over the discussion: Can we put aside our emotional reaction?  If the answer, implicit or otherwise, is no, then the case is over, and the First Amendment will from then on have a “funeral exception” to the right to speak out in public in outrageous and hurtful ways.  It was apparent, throughout an hour of oral argument Wednesday, that emotion was more dominant than law, at least among most of the Justices.  Perhaps typically, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who did seem to want to talk about legal principles, could not keep from pronouncing that “this is a case about exploiting a private family’s grief. Why should the First Amendment tolerate that?”


By the end of the argument, it seemed that, if the Justices could settle on a legal principle to govern funeral protests of the kind that greeted the service for Marine Lane Corporal Matthew Snyder, it might well be the compromise position suggested at one point by Justice Stephen G. Breyer. The First Amendment would allow a lawsuit for outrageously causing harm to someone’s emotional life — at least at a funeral — but limit it so that it would not forbid all forms of protests at such an event. As Breyer put it: “What I’m trying to accomplish, to allow this tort to exist but not allow the existence of it to interfere with an important public message where that is a reasonable thing to do.”

That approach also seemed to hold some appeal for Justice Anthony M. Kennedy, who expressed his concern that the Westboro Baptists were seeking a constitutional right to follow around any individual who had a particular trait that the pursuers disliked, and making that person a target of outrageous comments. In addition, Kennedy openly invited counsel to “help us in finding some line” that would make such pursuits unprotected as free speech.

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