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- SUPREME COURT ISSUES IMPORTANT FREE SPEECH CASE
- Fatal Shooting at Youngstown State Fraternity
- “All-Inclusive” Sorority Recognized At Purdue
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Newsletter > March 2011 > "SUPREME COURT ISSUES IMPORTANT FREE SPEECH CASE"
SUPREME COURT ISSUES IMPORTANT FREE SPEECH CASE
The United States Supreme Court just decided a highly controversial First Amendment Free Speech case. The case, Snyder v. Phelps,1 involved protests that the Westboro Baptist Church frequently conducts at military funerals. This specific case involved a protest at the funeral of Lance Cpl. Matthew A. Snyder, a Marine who was killed in Iraq.
The Westboro Baptist Church, led by Fred Phelps, claims that God is punishing the nation for its continued tolerance of homosexuality. They protested at Mr. Snyder’s funeral with signs that read, among other things, “Thank God for Dead Soldiers” and “You’re going to Hell.” Mr. Synder’s father sued the protestors, seeking damages for the intentional infliction of emotional distress. At the trial, the jury returned a large verdict for the plaintiff, but the result was overturned on appeal.
The Court agreed with the Court of Appeals, and held that the First Amendment protects hateful speech at military funerals. Chief Justice Roberts, in writing for the 8-member majority (only Justice Alito dissented), stated, “Speech is powerful.” Speech can “stir people to action, move them to tears of both joy and sorrow, and—as it did here—inflict great pain.”
However, because of the great importance of free speech to our nation, “we cannot react to that pain by punishing the speaker.” Justice Roberts continued that we must protect “even hurtful speech on public issues to ensure that we do not stifle public debate.”
In his dissent, Justice Alito stated, “Our profound national commitment to free and open debate is not a license for the vicious verbal assault that occurred in this case.”
This case may not have wide-ranging implications for Greek organizations, but it certainly could for free speech issues on college campuses. Colleges may be more hesitant to implement and enforce restrictive speech codes. However, Greek chapters should keep in mind the distinction between what is legally permissible and what is in good taste. Just because a chapter has the constitutional right to host a party with an offensive theme, it does not mean that they should do so.
1 Snyder v. Phelps, Case No. 09-751.