FOR THE WEEK OF MAR. 07, 2011
Even distasteful military funeral protesters have free speech rights, Supreme Court affirms
Look at national, state and local news pages for other hot-button issues that provoke heated speech. See if you spot highly emotional or extreme statements.
Comments in newspaper letters, under articles or in online forums can be restricted because they're not public speech. Does the paper let readers flag inappropriate comments for review? Discuss whether that's helpful or harmful.
Discuss how newspapers uphold First Amendment principles and how communities benefit. Does a current issue in the news show why a free press is important?
Obnoxious, ugly, repugnant public speech tests our Constitution, as well as our tolerance. For justices sworn to uphold America's fundamental principles, what's said by those pushing the limits is secondary to what the First Amendment says about the right to speak openly. In an 8-1 decision last week, the U.S. Supreme Court upholds a small church's ability to stage loud anti-gay protests outside soldiers' funerals.
The landmark case balanced free speech against grieving families' privacy rights. Speech "cannot be restricted simply because it is upsetting or arouses contempt," Chief Justice John Roberts' majority opinion says. Tolerance is needed "to ensure that we do not stifle public debate," the ruling adds.
Roberts and seven colleagues feel Westboro's message isn't about specific soldiers whose services they picket, but rather about a wider national issues -- qualifying for First Amendment protection. Justice Samuel Alito, the only dissenter, sees the demonstrations as a private action against individual families that should be able to sue for damages. "Our profound national commitment to free and open debate is not a license for the vicious verbal assault that occurred in this case," Alito says in an impassioned opinion.
Sarah Palin tweets: "Common sense & decency absent as wacko 'church' allowed hate msgs spewed @ soldiers' funerals but we can't invoke God's name in public square." -- Ex-Alaska governor, in Twitter message shortly after ruling March 2
Blogger says: "I don't know how the court could have ruled otherwise. Tolerating the rantings of hateful fools is part of the price we pay for free speech." -- Jay Bookman, Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Law professor says: "I am grateful to Justice Alito for writing a dissent so that the public understands that there are two sides to this question. That said, I think that the majority of the court is correct." -- Richard Epstein, New York University
Front Page Talking Points Archive