ST. LOUIS (KMOX) – The American Civil Liberties Union of Eastern Missouri says today’s U.S. Supreme Court ruling in defense of Westboro Baptist Church is a victory for free speech.
Tony Rothert, Legal Director of the local ACLU branch, says the ruling “reaffirms that speech on public sidewalks is protected and has a special place in America.”
The controversial Topeka church appealed to the high court after the father of a dead marine sued the group for emotional distress, calling their message a case of targeted harassment.
“The ruling also reaffirms that speech can’t be criminalized just because it’s offensive and that the obligation of people who are offended by speech is to either counteract it with other speech or avert their eyes and avoid it,” Rothert said.
The Westboro case and 8-1 ruling have been followed closely in Missouri where debates still loom over the constitutionality of city ordinances aimed at limiting Westboro’s reach.
Rothert says the Supreme Court has left open the question of whether or not state and local governments can criminalize free speech at funerals.
“The issue is still alive and is going to require further consideration by the courts,” Rothert said.
The court’s ruling today states that, if content-neutral, such ordinanaces may be constitutional but will need to be decided on an individual basis. Those decisions, according to Rothert, will be made by federal appeals courts.
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