Front-Page Embrace for Free Speech of 'God Hates Fags' Folk, But Not for Political Speech

Thursday's New York Times led with the Supreme Court's 8-1 decision in the case pitting Westboro Baptist Church, the notorious roaming enclave that pickets funerals holding signs bearing messages like "God Hates Fags," against the family of a Marine who died in Iraq, Matthew Snyder, whose funeral was picketed.

The top of Supreme Court reporter Adam Liptak's story, "Justices Uphold Hateful Protest As Free Speech - Picketing At A Funeral - Church's Action Called Public Discourse - Alito Dissents," quoted extensively from the pro-speech decision written by Chief Justice John Roberts.

The First Amendment protects hateful protests at military funerals, the Supreme Court ruled on Wednesday in an 8-to-1 decision.

"Speech is powerful," Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. wrote for the majority. "It can stir people to action, move them to tears of both joy and sorrow, and - as it did here - inflict great pain."

But under the First Amendment, he went on, "we cannot react to that pain by punishing the speaker." Instead, the national commitment to free speech, he said, requires protection of "even hurtful speech on public issues to ensure that we do not stifle public debate."

The decision, from which Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. dissented, was the latest in a series of muscular First Amendment rulings from the Roberts court. Last year, the court struck down laws limiting speech about politics and making it a crime to distribute depictions of cruelty to animals.

Also, a Thursday editorial, "Even Hurtful Speech," celebrated the ruling of the editorial page's consistent foe, Chief Justice John Roberts: "In the kind of incisive language he is capable of when he cares about the legal principle at stake, Chief Justice Roberts described the effects of words wielded as weapons against individuals, while arguing that even deeply flawed ideas must be defended because they are part of the public debate on which this country depends."

The paper's warm embrace of the ruling is no surprise. The Times, which is editorially opposed to First Amendment protections for political advertising, has an untrammeled view of First Amendment rights when it comes to violent video games and the disgusting picketing of funerals by Westboro Baptist Church. In 2010 it along with other media outlets filed a friend of the court brief in favor of the group's right to picket funerals.

By contrast, reporter Liptak wasn't nearly as copacetic last year, after the Supreme Court ruled 5-4 in another free speech case: Citizens United vs. Federal Election Commission, which expanded the free speech rights of corporations to make "electioneering communications" during campaigns. The subhead to Liptak's lead story of January 22, 2010 ignored the victory for free speech in favor of dour liberal musings on the corruption of democracy: "Dissenters Argue That Ruling Will Corrupt Democracy." Notice the contrast between Liptak's sunny lead today and the sour one in his Citizens United story in January 2010:

Overruling two important precedents about the First Amendment rights of corporations, a bitterly divided Supreme Court on Thursday ruled that the government may not ban political spending by corporations in candidate elections....The justices in the majority brushed aside warnings about what might follow from their ruling in favor of a formal but fervent embrace of a broad interpretation of free speech rights.

Liptak quoted Chief Justice Roberts' decision at length in sentences two through five on Thursday, yet in his story on the Citizens United decision, one less appealing to the Times, Liptak didn't quote from Justice Anthony Kennedy's majority decision until the tenth sentence.

The lead editorial that same day was subtly titled "The Court's Blow to Democracy."

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