Supreme Court upholds First Amendment in Phelps case

On March 2, the United States Supreme Court ruled on the case of Snyder v. Phelps, 09-751, which was a case concerning the First Amendment of the United States Constitution’s free speech protection.

The nation’s highest court ruled in favor of Phelps in an 8-1 decision. Justice Samuel Alito was the only dissenting opinion.

The court’s ruling, which can be read here, is 36 pages long. In it, Chief Justice John Roberts Jr. wrote for the majority, “Given that Westboro’s speech was at a public place on a matter of public concern, that speech is entitled to special protection under the First Amendment.”

The entire majority opinion gives strong backing to First Amendment.

The Snyder in the case is Albert Snyder, who sued the Westboro Baptist Church after its members protested the funeral of his son, Marine Lance Corporal Matthew Snyder.


The Phelps Clan, which makes up the majority of the Topeka-based Westboro Baptist Church, is know for picketing and protesting at the funerals of fallen U.S. soldiers. They often carry signs that depict graphic images of gay sex that proclaim their distaste for homosexuality. These signs say things like “God Hates Fags” and “Thank God For 9/11″ and “Thank God For Dead Soldiers” and “Fag Vets,” all in their attempt to spread their belief that U.S. deaths in Afghanistan and Iraq are punishment for the nation’s tolerance of homosexuality.

I have personally seen the protesters in action. I think what they do is distasteful and wrong. It shows absolutely no respect for a grieving family, and I thought what they were doing should be illegal. I have written posts about this group that carry the same sentiment.

However, I think I was wrong. Not about it being distasteful or wrong, but about it being illegal.

It is, and should be, legal to do what they do.

I don’t agree with what they do, and I don’t show support for them in any way. However, it do support the First Amendment, which allows the Phelps Clan to do what they do, even if it is grotesque and horrible.


As a journalist, I am a huge proponent of the First Amendment and all the rights it guarantees us — such as freedom of speech, freedom of the press, religious freedom, freedom to peaceably assemble and to petition the government for redress of grievances.

Therefore, I have to say the Supreme Court made the right decision. It upheld what the First Amendment is all about.

If the Phelps Clan had lost this case, it would have set a bad precedent. It would have left too much open for interpretation. It would have put all forms of expression at risk because there wouldn’t be a clear line as to what is protected speech and what isn’t.

Just because something is hurtful or distasteful, doesn’t mean it is illegal.

Would I be pissed if they protested the funeral of my loved one? Absolutely, but I would be mad at the people doing it. I wouldn’t take it out on the First Amendment.

Some, myself included, have defined the actions of the WBC as hate speech, but again, that leaves too much interpretation. How does one define hate speech? It is like saying pornography should be banned. How do you define pornography?

My definition might be very different from yours, and that is exactly why the Supreme Court made the right decision.

The fact the WBC protests on moral grounds is quite laughable. What they do is very immoral. But that doesn’t make it illegal.

The line between ethics and law is very gray. Sometimes the ethical decision isn’t always the best legal option, and it works the same in reverse. Sometimes the legal decision isn’t always the best ethical option.

This is all very confusing, I know. However, the important thing to understand is that by voting in favor of the First Amendment by way of the WBC, the Supreme Court ensured everyone will continue to have free speech rights.

If someone wants to stage a protest about something of public interest or importance, which actually falls under the peaceably assemble clause of the Amendment too, they can do so without worry of being censored by someone who disagrees.

And yes, what the WBC protests about is of interest to the public because it discusses a hotly-debated topic — gays in the military and the United States stance on war, among other things.

Instead of chilling the First Amendment by voting against the WBC, the Supreme Court kept the fire of the First Amendment alive and burning bright.

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About toddvogts 833 Articles
Todd R. Vogts, Ph.D., is an assistant professor of media at Sterling College in Kansas. Previously, he taught yearbook, newspaper, newsmagazine, and online journalism in various Kansas high schools, and he ran a weekly newspaper in rural Kansas. He continues to freelance as a professional journalist from time to time. Also, Vogts is a member of the Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ), the Journalism Education Association (JEA), and the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication (AEJMC), among others. He earned his Master Journalism Educator (MJE) certification from JEA in 2022. When he’s not teaching or writing, he runs his mobile disk jockey service and takes part in other entrepreneurial ventures. He can be reached at or via his website at