Tolerance comes first when it comes to freedom of speech even if the speaker is scathingly uncharitable, ruled the US Supreme Court saying that a fringe church's anti-gay protests at military funerals, though hurtful, were within the limits set by the Constitution.
According to the court's ruling the freedom of speech was of such great importance that it covers even such protests that are intrinsically cruel, for instance, in this case when the acerbic protests were staged when the family was in profound grief.
Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. opined that though the protest by Westboro Baptist Church's picketing at dead soldiers' funerals was "certainly hurtful and its contribution to public discourse may be negligible," yet it was not proper to punish the speaker so that right to free speech was not violated or compromised in any manner.
"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," said Chief Justice Roberts.
The protests in questions were staged in 2006 at the funeral of 20-year-old Marine Lance Cpl. Matthew Snyder in Westminster, who had died in Iraq. Over 600 funerals were protested at. Snyder's father, however, chose to take the group to court seeking damages for having turned his son's funeral into a "circus".
SC relaxes Constitutional requirement for dying words
The Supreme Court, in the 6-2 majority ruling, distinguished between the statements made during the investigation into the crime and those made during the urgencies created at the crime scene when the crime event is still hot.
The case involved a Detroit accused who was identified by the victim shortly before he succumbed to his wounds in 2001. The ruling can revive murder charges against the accused.
In 2001, Detroit police received an emergency call, and arrived at a gas station where the victim, Covington, was found bleeding from a gunshot wound to the stomach. He told the police that he had been shot by one 'Rick'. The statement was given in the presence of some five police officers. The police had built their case against the accused working forward from the dying statement made by the victim. However, the victim did not survive beyond a few hours after being shot.
The Constitutional requirement of testimonial confrontation enshrined in the Sixth Amendment has been considered an absolute constitutional guarantee by the Supreme Court, and two of the most ardent supporters of the unwavering rigidity of the confrontation provision heard the case and dissented. Justice Scalia, being one of the dissenters, observed quite pointedly that the majority ruling was "so transparently false that professing to believe it demeans this institution." He further said that with such "malleable approach the guarantee of confrontation is no guarantee at all."
Writing for the majority, Justice Sonia Sotomayor retorted, "The dissent criticizes the complexity of our approach, but we, at least, are unwilling to sacrifice accuracy for simplicity."
Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg stood with Justice Scalia in the dissent, but did not back his scathing remarks.
Justice Scalia is said to be the most vocal supporter of the absoluteness of the confrontation requirement since 2004.