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SPJ joins amicus brief in First Amendment case involving Westboro Baptist Church
For immediate release:
Kevin Smith, SPJ President, 304-365-4864
Scott Leadingham, SPJ Communications Department, 317-927-8000 ext. 211
INDIANAPOLIS – The Society of Professional Journalists has joined an amicus brief in Snyder v. Phelps, a case before the U.S. Supreme Court with broad implications for potential limitations to free speech and free press rights guaranteed by the Constitution. In joining the brief, which is authored by the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, SPJ reiterates the importance of defending the First Amendment even when that includes the objectionable use of hate speech.
At the center of the dispute is controversial anti-gay activist Fred Phelps and his Westboro Baptist Church – comprised mostly of his family – which travels the country protesting pro-gay issues and military funerals. The case before the Supreme Court has the potential to reverse longstanding libel and free speech law that currently favors writers and speakers in cases of alleged defamation. It began when Phelps’ group protested at the funeral of Matthew Snyder, a Marine killed in 2006 while serving in Iraq. The group held signs such as “God hates fags” and “Thank God for dead soldiers.” Albert Snyder, Matthew’s father, sued for damages related to defamation and intentional infliction of emotional distress and was awarded $10.9 million. The Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals overturned the verdict, saying that the group’s speech, though repugnant, is protected. Snyder has appealed to the Supreme Court.
“Many of the cases before SPJ seeking our support are clear in their need for free speech protection. This case, while having the underpinning of a First Amendment defense, is very difficult for us because of the vile nature of these acts by the Westboro Baptist Church,” SPJ President Kevin Smith said. “This case is a bitter one and while we outwardly reject their words and behavior, we must support the defense of free speech, even the most disdainful of it.”
In no way does SPJ encourage the Westboro Baptist Church’s statements or any similar message of hate. SPJ’s leaders find Phelps’ message utterly putrid, but the potential outcomes are so broad that if the Court upholds the original monetary verdict against Phelps it will set a legal precedent that would weaken First Amendment law and undermine constitutional protections for journalists and every citizen.
Founded in 1909 as Sigma Delta Chi, SPJ promotes the free flow of information vital to a well-informed citizenry; works to inspire and educate the next generation of journalists; and protects First Amendment guarantees of freedom of speech and press. For more information about SPJ, please visit www.spj.org.