RICHMOND, VA (March 2, 2011) – Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli issued the following statement regarding today’s decision by the United States Supreme Court in Snyder v. Phelps. Back on June 1, 2010, the attorney general decided not to join other states in an amicus brief on behalf of Albert Snyder in the case. Mr. Snyder is the father of Matthew Snyder, a soldier killed in Iraq whose funeral was picketed by Fred Phelps and his followers at the Westboro Baptist Church.
The attorney general’s statement:
“Today, the Supreme Court of the United States vindicated the decision of this office not to join an amicus brief signed by 48 other states in support of tort liability and against Fred Phelps and the followers of the Westboro Baptist Church. While, as both the court in its 8-1 decision and this office have recognized, the speech at issue was vile and reprehensible, it is constitutionally protected under the First Amendment.
“The First Amendment is designed to protect ideas, even ideas that upset, that inflame, or that the majority of the country would find offensive. It protects the rights of speakers we agree with, but also – and more importantly – it protects those speakers we would condemn. As Chief Justice Roberts wrote for the Court,
‘Westboro believes that America is morally flawed; many Americans might feel the same about Westboro. Westboro’s funeral picketing is certainly hurtful and its contribution to public discourse may be negligible. But Westboro addressed matters of public import on public property, in a peaceful manner, in full compliance with the guidance of local officials. The speech was indeed planned to coincide with Matthew Snyder’s funeral, but did not itself disrupt that funeral, and Westboro’s choice to conduct its picketing at that time and place did not alter the nature of its speech.
‘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. 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. That choice requires that we shield Westboro from tort liability for its picketing in this case.’
“Because my office is committed to the rule of law and to the principles of the First Amendment, we agree wholeheartedly with the chief justice, and that is why we declined to join the amicus brief in this case, even when doing so was decidedly unpopular.
“I absolutely deplore the vile and despicable acts of Fred Phelps and his followers. I also greatly sympathize with the Snyder family and all families who have experienced the hatefulness of those people. But the consequences of this case had to be considered beyond what would happen just to the Westboro followers.
“If the court had found against Westboro, the case could have set a precedent that would severely curtail certain valid exercises of free speech. If protestors – whether political, civil rights, pro-life, or environmental – said something that offended the object of the protest to the point where that person felt harmed, the protestors could successfully be sued.
“While the First Amendment does protect the speech engaged in by the Westboro Baptist Church under the facts of this case, Virginia has a statute criminalizing disruptions at funerals – a law which I voted for while in the state Senate. That statute even provides for jail time for those who willfully disrupt a funeral or memorial service to the point of preventing or interfering with its orderly conduct. We believe that such time, place, and manner restrictions imposed by that law are constitutionally permissible so long as they are neutral as to the content of speech. Nothing in the court’s decision suggests otherwise, with the court noting that 43 states have such laws and that ‘[t]o the extent these laws are content neutral, they raise very different questions from the tort verdict at issue in this case.’
“I am committed to vigorously defending Virginia’s funeral disruption statute, but I also must defend the First Amendment. If Phelps or others cross the line and violate the law, my office stands ready to provide assistance to local prosecutors to vindicate the law.”
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