Westboro Baptist Church decision: Alito dissents, says free speech not a license for "vicious verbal assault"

Fred Phelps Jr., a member of Westboro Baptist Church from Topeka Kansas, walks around the US Supreme Court with anti-gay banners on October 6, 2010 in Washington,DC Getty Images

Fred Phelps Jr., a member of Westboro Baptist Church from Topeka Kansas, walks around the US Supreme Court with anti-gay banners on October 6, 2010 in Washington, DC.
Getty Images

Justice Samuel Alito was the sole dissenter in Wednesday's Supreme Court decision to protect the right of the Westboro Baptist Church to hold inflammatory, anti-gay protests outside of funerals, insisting the funeral protests did not deserve constitutional protection.

"Our profound national commitment to free and open debate is not a license for the vicious verbal assault that occurred in this case," Alito wrote in his dissent.

High court rules for military funeral protesters

The Westboro Baptist Church, an anti-gay fundamentalist group led by Rev. Fred Phelps, habitually protests high-profile events as a means to publicize its view that U.S. deaths in Iraq and Afghanistan are God's punishment for American "immorality" - particularly in regard to national tolerance of homosexuality.

The church is best known for protesting the funerals of military servicemen, and famously carries signs with such sayings as "Thank God for Dead Soldiers" and "Fags Doom Nations." (It has also, however, picketed such events as theater productions and high school graduations.)

The father of Matthew Snyder, who was killed in Iraq in 2006 and whose funeral was protested by Westboro Baptist Church, sued the group in 2006 and won $11 million in damages. (The figure was later reduced to $5 million by a judge.) But in the 8-1 ruling on Wednesday, the Court said the church could not be held liable for inflicting emotional distress on the families of deceased soldiers.

The justices said the speech was protected because the protests were on a matter of public concern, on public property and conducted in a peaceful manner.

"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," Chief Justice Roberts wrote in the decision. "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."

Alito noted in his dissent, however, that the father of the soldier was not a public figure, but "simply a parent" who wanted to "bury his son in peace."

Alito said the father suffered "severe and lasting emotional injury" as a result of the church's "malevolent verbal attack."

He added that such vicious verbal attacks that make "no contribution to public debate" are not protected when they inflict "severe emotional injury on private persons at a time of intense emotional sensitivity."

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    Jan Crawford is CBS News Chief Political and Legal Correspondent. She is from "Crossroads," Alabama.

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