Supreme Court defends free speech of funeral protestors

Top: Albert Snyder, center, flanked by his attorneys Craig Trebilock, left, and Sean Summers, walk to a news conference following the U.S. Supreme Court's ruling in favor of the Westboro Baptist Church on Wednesday in York, Pa. The 8-1 decision ended Snyder's lawsuit, which charged members of the fundamentalist church for the emotional pain they caused by showing up at his son Matthew's funeral.

Bottomt: Supporters of the Rev. Fred Phelps, of the Topeka, Kan.-based Westboro Baptist Church, demonstrate outside the funeral service for Marine Lance Cpl. Rex Arthur Page on July 9, 2006, in Kirksville, Mo.

"Speech is powerful," Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. wrote for the majority. "It can stir people to action, move them to tears of both joy and sorrow, and — as it did here — inflict great pain."

But under the First Amendment, wrote Roberts, "we cannot react to that pain by punishing the speaker." Instead, a commitment to free speech, he said, requires protection of "even hurtful speech on public issues to ensure that we do not stifle public debate."