Connecticut Law Review Volume 45 – Issue 1

To Drink the Cup of Fury: Funeral Picketing, Public Discourse, and the First Amendment

In Snyder v. Phelps, the Supreme Court ruled that the Westboro Baptist Church had a First Amendment right to picket the funeral of a young soldier killed in Iraq.  This decision reinforces a view that has become increasingly dominant in First Amendment jurisprudence—the view that the state may not regulate public discourse to protect individuals from emotional or dignitary injury.  This Article contends that this view not only sacrifices the law’s protections for individual personality but also undermines the normative foundations of public discourse itself.  The Article then presents an alternative theory of the First Amendment which holds that the same values of human dignity and autonomy that support free speech also give rise to other fundamental rights.  Thus, speakers should have a duty to respect the personality and rights of others.  Drawing extensively on the record in Snyder as well as on other materials, the Article argues that Westboro’s funeral picketing should not receive First Amendment protection, for the picketing is intended to condemn the deceased and to inflict severe distress on the mourners in violation of their rights to privacy, dignity, emotional well-being, and religious liberty.  Finally, the Article shows that although Westboro prevailed in Snyder, this may prove to be a Pyrrhic victory, for the Court also suggested that states can protect mourners through carefully drawn buffer-zone laws.

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