pageok
pageok
pageok
The Intentional Infliction of Emotional Distress Tort and the Freedom of Speech:

I'm blogging today about the recent $10.9 million verdict against the Phelpsians for their offensive picketing 1000 feet away from a military funeral. Since there are lot of doctrines and questions in play here, I'll try to post separately about several separate aspects of the issue. I should also say up front that I think Phelps' speech (including both its content and the choice of its time and location) is disgusting. The question, though, is whether particular restrictions on this speech -- like restrictions on other disgusting speech -- are consistent with the First Amendment.

Let me begin by focusing not on the Phelpsians' speech, but rather on the laws under which the verdict was entered, starting with the tort of intentional infliction of emotional distress. This tort basically allows recovery when the defendant engages in (1) outrageous speech or conduct that (2) causes severe emotional distress to the defendant, and (3) the defendant intends to cause such distress, or is aware of a high probability that the speech or conduct will cause such distress.

It seems to me that this tort, as applied to speech, is unconstitutionally vague and overbroad. If narrowed by courts to cover only conduct and otherwise unprotected speech (such as reckless falsehoods, threats, "fighting words" [more on these later], and other speech that falls within the exceptions to First Amendment protection), it would be permissible. But until it is so narrowed, it is unconstitutional.

The Supreme Court in fact held the tort unconstitutional as to speech on matters of public concern about public figures, in Hustler v. Falwell. But though the Court had no occasion there to discuss such lawsuits brought by private figures (Falwell, the plaintiff, was clearly a public figure), the Court's reasoning amply applies here:

[I]n the world of debate about public affairs, many things done with motives that are less than admirable are protected by the First Amendment... [E]ven when a speaker or writer is motivated by hatred or ill will his expression [is] protected by the First Amendment ....

If it were possible by laying down a principled standard to separate [outrageous speech] from [protected speech], public discourse would probably suffer little or no harm. But we doubt that there is any such standard, and we are quite sure that the pejorative description "outrageous" does not supply one. "Outrageousness" in the area of political and social discourse has an inherent subjectiveness about it which would allow a jury to impose liability on the basis of the jurors' tastes or views, or perhaps on the basis of their dislike of a particular expression. An "outrageousness" standard thus runs afoul of our longstanding refusal to allow damages to be awarded because the speech in question may have an adverse emotional impact on the audience.

And indeed the Court was absolutely right about the "inherent subjectiveness" of the "outrageousness" standard. I imagine that nearly any jury would find picketing of soldiers' funerals, with signs such as "Thank God for dead soldiers," to be outrageous. But the law would potentially cover much more than such speech -- and, if upheld under the First Amendment, it would apply even in cases where juries aren't involved, such as university expulsion decisions under campus speech codes and the like. Say a university bans posting the Mohammed cartoons on the grounds that they are so "outrageous" that they recklessly inflict "severe emotional distress" on Muslim students (who aren't, of course, public figures). Or say it bans speech that's harshly critical of race-based affirmative action, and suggests that people admitted under such programs are not adequately qualified to be at the university.

Or say a plaintiff sues a newspaper that published a letter to the editor stating, "We can stop the murders of American soldiers in Iraq by those who seek revenge or to regain their power. Whenever there is an assassination or another atrocity we should proceed to the closest mosque and execute five of the first Muslims we encounter. After all this is a 'Holy War' and although such a procedure is not fair or just, it might end the horror. Machiavelli was correct. In war it is more effective to be feared than loved and the end result would be a more equitable solution for both giving us a chance to build a better Iraq for the Iraqis." (I should stress that I find this view repugnant, but it seems to me that it must be protected by the First Amendment.)

In all these cases, a reasonable factfinder could indeed conclude that the speech is "outrageous" and recklessly inflicts "severe emotional distress" on some private figures. You or I might disagree, but we should expect some government actors, whether jurors or university officials, to take such a view. And if the intentional infliction of emotional distress could apply to such speech, then the speech would be effectively stripped of constitutional protection.

Moreover, allowing the punishment of speech under such a vague standard would deter even more speech than would actually be punished. As the Court held in Grayned v. City of Rockford (paragraph breaks added),

Vague laws offend several important values. First, because we assume that man is free to steer between lawful and unlawful conduct, we insist that laws give the person of ordinary intelligence a reasonable opportunity to know what is prohibited, so that he may act accordingly. Vague laws may trap the innocent by not providing fair warning.

Second, if arbitrary and discriminatory enforcement is to be prevented, laws must provide explicit standards for those who apply them. A vague law impermissibly delegates basic policy matters to policemen, judges, and juries for resolution on an ad hoc and subjective basis, with the attendant dangers of arbitrary and discriminatory application.

Third, but related, where a vague statute "abut[s] upon sensitive areas of basic First Amendment freedoms," it "operates to inhibit the exercise of [those] freedoms." Uncertain meanings inevitably lead citizens to "'steer far wider of the unlawful zone' ... than if the boundaries of the forbidden areas were clearly marked."

All these problems -- especially the deterrent effect ("Third") -- are implicated by the vague "outrageousness" standard.

In the next post -- even if my criticisms of the Intentional Infliction of Emotional Distress tort are generally sound, why not look at the law as applied in this case, rather than looking at the law generally?

18 Comments
The Overbreadth Doctrine and the $10.9 Million Funeral Picketing Case:

I just blogged about why the intentional infliction of emotional distress tort is unconstitutional, at least unless it's limited to otherwise unprotected speech (such as threats or fighting words) -- which it hasn't been. Here I want to explain why it's proper to focus on the constitutionality of the law generally, and not just on whether the Phelpsians' particular (and especially outrageous) speech was constitutionally protected.

As a doctrinal matter, the "overbreadth" doctrine allows such facial challenges to speech restrictions, at least so long as the restrictions are substantially overbroad. Likewise, the "vagueness" doctrine allows facial challenges to vague laws. For the reasons I discussed in my earlier post, the emotional distress tort is indeed substantially overbroad and vague.

And there's good reason for this. First, as I discussed earlier, the emotional distress tort, if upheld, would continue to deter constitutionally protected speech far beyond that which the Phelpsians engaged in, since many speakers could reasonably fear that some jury (or university administrator or judge or other factfinder) will find certain speech "outrageous." As-applied challenges don't suffice to materially diminish this "chilling effect," since many speakers lack the money and -- the tolerance for risk of ruinous liability -- needed to challenge such laws. But by allowing facial challenges, the overbreadth doctrine forces courts and legislatures to narrow overbroad laws, and thus helps minimize the chilling effect.

Second, say that you believe the Phelpsians' speech may indeed be punished on certain grounds, for instance because it condemns a dead person near his funeral. Say that you think the speech is outrageous precisely because of this; and say even that a restriction limited to such speech would indeed be constitutional (more on that later), because the restriction is ideologically neutral, and because it is severely limited in time and place.

The trouble is that the emotional distress verdict gives zero assurance that the jury indeed acted ideologically neutrally, or based entirely (or even chiefly) on the time and place of the speech. Maybe it did act this way -- but it was never told to do so, since it was simply asked whether the speech was "outrageous" and recklessly or deliberately caused severe emotional distress.

The jury could have reasoned the speech was "outrageous" in part because it was harshly unpatriotic, or critical of heroes who fought and died for their country. It could have reasoned the speech was outrageous in part because it was founded on virulently antigay reasoning. It could have reasoned the speech was outrageous in part because it perverted religious (even Christian) thinking for hateful purposes. It could have reasoned the speech was outrageous chiefly because of its message, and not because of its location. And it could have reasoned this entirely consistently with its legal duties, since it was told to decide based on "outrageousness," a concept that is entirely consistent with scrutinizing the viewpoint of the speech, and not just its ideologically neutral offensiveness or its time and place.

So if one thinks that ideological neutrality, and a focus on restricting only speech that is very near a funeral, are what makes punishing the Phelpsians constitutional, one should insist that they be punished under a law that requires juries to decide on these grounds. A decision that simply stems from the jury's finding of "outrageousness," and that could well be based on the viewpoint of the speech, is not a constitutionally sound decision.

1 Comments
Invasion of Privacy and the Freedom of Speech:

The Snyder v. Phelps jury held defendants liable not just for intentional infliction of emotional distress, but also for invasion of privacy. "Invasion of privacy" covers several torts, but the ones alleged here were "intrusion upon seclusion" (because the picketing was outside a funeral, albeit 1000 feet away) and "publicity given to private life" (apparently because of the Phelpsians' statements on their Web site that plaintiff and his wife "raised [the deceased] for the devil," "RIPPED that body apart and taught Matthew to defy his Creator, to divorce, and to commit adultery," "taught him how to support the largest pedophile machine in the history of the entire world, the Roman Catholic monstrosity," and "taught Matthew to be an idolator").

Even if the disclosure tort is constitutionally permissible -- most lower courts have held it is, though the Supreme Court hasn't opined on this -- it has been interpreted quite narrowly, and I don't see anything in this case that involves the sort of disclosure of highly embarrassing personal information (e.g., medical or sexual history) generally required for liability. Both the site and the picketing is offensive because of the viewpoint they express, the harsh language that they use, and their expression of the viewpoint in a way that's personalized to a recently killed soldier -- not because it reveals some embarrassing secrets.

The intrusion upon seclusion tort generally focuses on conduct that is offensive regardless of the message it expresses (the Restatement of Torts illustrations are entering a patient's hospital room to take a photograph over the patient's objection, photographing through someone's bedroom window through a telescope, tapping someone's phone, getting someone's bank records using a court order, and calling someone every day for a month at inconvenient times). The tort is constitutional precisely because it's content-neutral. Here, though, the intrusion stemmed not just from the proximity of the picketing to the funeral -- there must have been a good deal of speech within 1000 feet of the church at which the funeral service was being conducted, and surely one wouldn't call all of it "highly offensive intrusion upon seclusion" -- but also from the message of the picketing.

Applying the intrusion tort here thus raises pretty much the same overbreadth, vagueness, and viewpoint discrimination problems as does apply the emotional distress tort. It may be a little narrower because it at least formally requires some sort of physical proximity with the plaintiffs. But it's also broader because it doesn't even require a finding of outrageousness (only the intrusion's being "highly offensive to a reasonable person"), and in any case the narrowing is pretty slight, if speech within 1000 feet of the funeral qualifies as physical proximity.

And one can easily see how dangerous this tort, if applicable here, could potentially be: It could conceivably lead to massive liability for antiabortion picketing within 1000 feet of abortion clinics (on the theory that people who are going in for emotionally draining and possibly life-altering medical procedures are just as entitled to "seclusion" as people who are going to a funeral). It could lead to massive liability for protests within 1000 feet of churches (including the Phelpsians), mosques, and synagogues, on the theory that people are entitled to "seclusion" in their ordinary religious services as well as in funeral religious services. It could lead to universities' being allowed to punish students for distributing or posting allegedly offensive materials near dorms; and more.

13 Comments
The Phelpsians' Picketing and Fighting Words:

I've argued in earlier posts that the verdict against Phelps should be set aside because the intentional infliction of emotional distress tort is facially overbroad and thus unconstitutional as applied to speech. The tort might be constitutional if a court limits it to applying only to otherwise unprotected speech (such as threats, fighting words, and so on); but it has not been so limited.

Still, some say, what if the tort is so limited, perhaps by the appellate court in this case, and liability is defended on the grounds that the Phelpsians' speech was unprotected under the "fighting words" exception? I expect that would require reversing the verdict and retrying the case, since the jury wasn't required to find that the speech was fighting words -- but why not have such a retrial, or perhaps even affirm the verdict on the grounds that the speech was clearly fighting words and thus the failure to instruct the jury more narrowly was harmless error?

Under the "fighting words" exception, speech is unprotected if "tend[s] to incite an immediate breach of the peace" by provoking a fight, Chaplinsky v. New Hampshire (1942), so long as the speech consists of a "personally abusive epithet[] which, when addressed to the ordinary citizen, [is], as a matter of common knowledge, inherently likely to provoke violent reaction," Cohen v. California (1971), and is "directed to the person of the hearer," and is thus likely to be seen as "a direct personal insult." See Chaplinsky v. New Hampshire (1942); Cohen v. California (1971).

I have no doubt that the speech here would lead many listeners to want to punch the speaker; it would lead me to want to do that, too. But the "direct personal insult" requirement is important, or else the doctrine would lead to the punishment of a vast range of controversial speech: picket signs that condemn strikebreakers; abortion clinic protests that call abortion providers "murderers" or "babykillers"; military base protests that call soldiers "murderers" or "babykillers"; a wide range of public speech that some see as racist, sexist, antigay, religiously bigoted, anti-immigrant; and so on. And of course, as I mentioned for the emotional distress tort, the speech would then be punishable through civil lawsuits, through criminal prosecutions, and through other mechanisms, such as universities disciplining students for engaging in the supposed fighting words.

Fortunately, courts have in recent decades read the fighting words exception narrowly, to prevent the punishment of such speech. Likewise, condemning a dead soldier, much as it might offend the soldier's relatives, would not and should not be covered by the fighting words exception. And if it were found to be covered by such an exception, then I'd expect to see the exception grow to include many of the examples I mentioned.

7 Comments
Funeral Picketing and Residential Picketing:

I've tried to explain recent posts why I think this particular verdict against the Phelpsians is unconstitutional, because the intentional infliction of emotional distress tort and the invasion of privacy tort can't properly be used to punish such speech. But may a legislature permissibly enact statutes banning funeral picketing, perhaps by analogy to many jurisdictions' bans on residential picketing?

I discussed this in some measure last year; and it seems to me that indeed a content-neutral ban on picketing immediately in front of a place in which a funeral is being conducted would likely be upheld, just as content-neutral bans on picketing immediately in front of home are upheld.

But the bans would have to be content-neutral, rather than relying on criteria such as "outrageous[ness]" or "offensive[ness]," which invite an inquiry into the speaker's viewpoint. Compare Carey v. Brown, which struck down a residential picketing ban because the ban had a content-based exception for labor picketing.

The bans would also have to be narrow. Even as to residential picketing, the Court upheld restrictions in large part because they left open the alternative of parading through the neighborhood, and later struck down an injunction that created a 300-foot no-picketing buffer zone around certain residences. It's hard to see how, given this, the Court would uphold a ban that would cover the Phelpsians' speech 1000 feet away from the church at which the funeral was taking place.

Of course, the consequence of these limitations is that people would still be able to express their anti-American, anti-gay, cruel, unduly personalized, and just plain disgusting views in places where the bereaved could see them -- on radio programs (should such a program invite the speakers as guests or take their calls), in picket signs that aren't right in front of the funeral but are visible from the funeral procession, in press releases that some media outlets may report on, on Web sites, and the like. But repugnant as this speech may be, it seems to me that the First Amendment requires that it be tolerated.

3 Comments
Jury Discretion, Viewpoint Discrimination, and the Size of the Snyder v. Phelps Compensatory Damages Award:

Finally, let me close this series of posts with a thought about the particular damages award in Snyder, and what it says about the danger of leaving these questions to juries.

The jury awarded $8 million in punitive damages to the plaintiff in Snyder v. Phelps, but it also awarded $2.9 million in compensatory damages.

Now I stress again that the speech here was extremely offensive (and, in my view, entirely unjustified); and of course the plaintiff, being a grieving parent, was especially emotionally vulnerable. Yet I would think that even a grieving father wouldn't be that damaged by speech that (1) he saw on one occasion (albeit a deeply important occasion), during television reports following the funeral, that (2) he knew was not remotely reflective of the views of his community, and that (3) he knew was said by people who are held in contempt by the community. ("Snyder testified that he never saw the content of the signs as he entered and left St. John's on the day of his son's funeral," and recall that the signs were 1000 feet away from the church.)

The speech wasn't threatening. It didn't damage the father's reputation, or even the reputation of his late son. It wasn't constantly repeated. I can't quite see how it would exacerbate the father's grief, which of course stems from his son's death, not from the fact that a small minority of hateful, anti-American kooks and publicity hounds say the son deserved to die.

The speech doubtless made the father extremely (and rightly) angry. But is $2.9 million really a sensible compensation for that sort of emotional distress? Again, remember that this was supposed to be just the amount of compensatory damages. And of course, note also that even if the First Amendment were entirely out of the picture, the size of the compensatory verdict is constitutionally significant: Under the Court's Due Process Clause jurisprudence, the punitive damages would be unconstitutional if they were too many times greater than the compensatory damages.

This, I think, further illustrates the danger of leaving juries with the discretion to decide which speech should be suppressed, especially under broad and vague standards such as "outrageous[ness]." Liability easily ends up turning on how much juries condemn the speaker's viewpoint -- as well as the speaker's manner -- and not just on supposedly objective factors such as how much damages the speech actually inflicted.

50 Comments
Where's the State Action in Tort Awards Based on Speech?

Occasionally I hear people ask this question. Criminal prosecution for speech of course involves the government prosecuting and imprisoning or fining someone; injunctions of speech involve a court order barring speech; but when one individual sues another, is that really "state action" that's governed by the First Amendment? Why isn't it like a private employer firing a private employee, or a private property owner ejecting a demonstrator from his private property, neither of which poses a First Amendment problem? I've most recently heard this question about the Snyder v. Phelps intentional infliction of emotional distress jury verdict, but the same could be asked about speech-based verdicts for libel, disclosure of private facts, false light invasion of privacy, unauthorized use of another's name or likeness, interference with business relations, and the like.

The Court's answer is well-settled and, in my view, quite correct. Here's a relevant passage from New York Times v. Sullivan, the leading libel case. (The plaintiff there was a government official, but he was suing the same way any citizen could sue, and of course the First Amendment rules related to libel law don't just apply to government officials.)

We may dispose at the outset of ... the proposition relied on by the State Supreme Court -- that "The Fourteenth Amendment is directed against State action and not private action." That proposition has no application to this case. Although this is a civil lawsuit between private parties, the Alabama courts have applied a state rule of law which petitioners claim to impose invalid restrictions on their constitutional freedoms of speech and press. It matters not that that law has been applied in a civil action and that it is common law only, though supplemented by statute. The test is not the form in which state power has been applied but, whatever the form, whether such power has in fact been exercised.

That, I think, is exactly right. When a government actor (the court system) coercively transfers money from A to B because of A's speech, that is a restriction on speech. There's little difference in principle or in practice between the government's imposing a fine on, say, racist speech and the government's allowing people who are offended by racist speech to sue and collect damages (whether under a legislatively created statute or a judge-made common-law tort rule). In both situations, there is a government-created rule of law. In both situations, a government actor (a judge or jury) applies the rule of law based on the content of the person's speech. Both are therefore government-imposed content-based speech restrictions, and should be judged as such.

When a private employer stops paying a private employee because of the employee's speech, that does not involve government action. When a private property owner ejects a demonstrator because of the demonstrator's speech, and enforces this ejection through the threat of a trespass lawsuit or a trespass prosecution, then there would be government action in that lawsuit or prosecution -- the protection of real property rights does involve government action. But the government action would not be based on a governmental judgment about the content of the speech, only the government's deciding whether the defendant had stayed on another's property against the property owner's wishes. That's a big part of why trespass law is constitutional even applied to speakers.

Finally, when a person sues another for the breach of a speech-restrictive contract, there is also government action, but constitutionally permissible government action, because government actors do not themselves "define[] the content of publications that would trigger liability"; instead, contract law "simply requires those making promises to keep them. The parties themselves, as in this case, determine the scope of their legal obligations, and any restrictions which may be placed on the publication of truthful information are self-imposed."

So whenever a court acts coercively -- whether to put someone in jail, or to take his money -- there's government action. And when the government action involves restricting speech because of its content (or the supposed harms that flow from its content), without the speaker's prior contractual permission, that restriction triggers the usual First Amendment scrutiny.

29 Comments
The Phelpsians' Speech, the Mohammed Cartoons, and the Slippery Slope:

If the Phelpsians magically went to their reward tomorrow, public debate would suffer very little. But I think their speech needs to be protected, because allowing the restriction of such speech — especially using the "intentional infliction of emotional distress" tort — would lead to the restriction of much more valuable speech.

Now it's true, as many have argued, that the Phelpsians' speech is legally distinguishable from other speech that should be protected. A judge or jury could certainly hold other speech protected, even though some see it as outrageous and severely emotionally distressing, even if the verdict against the Phelpsians is upheld.

But to me the important question isn't whether the other speech is legally distinguishable from the 1000-feet-from-the-funeral picketing — it's whether the speech will indeed reliably end up being legally distinguished. I worry that it might not be, because judges and juries will be more likely to accept restrictions on other speech once the rationale of the anti-Phelpsian verdict is accepted. Let me briefly explain.

Consider a hypothetical scenario: The University of Maryland decides to discipline students who hold a demonstration carrying posters that display the Mohammed cartoons. The University disciplines for violating some sort of rule that bars the creation of a "hostile educational environment" for various religious groups, or for that matter a rule that bars "conduct or speech that is outrageous, and that intentionally or recklessly inflicts severe emotional distress on some students." One can of course imagine many other similar hypotheticals; I don't want to suggest that the bottom of this slippery slope would implicate the Mohammed cartoons and nothing else. I just thought that focusing on one concrete hypothetical would be helpful.

So assume Snyder v. Phelps is indeed upheld on appeal — perhaps based on some of the arguments made by commenters who defended the verdict — and thus becomes a binding precedent. Let's compare Snyder to the University of Maryland's action, as the University will defend it:

 The award in Snyder v. Phelps. The hypothetical University of Maryland decision.
1. Impact of government action on defendant$10.9 million in liability, imposed by the government acting as sovereign — likely enough to ruin defendants financially. Modest disciplinary action by a university, which might indirectly but likely at most slightly affect the student's educational and professional prospects.
2. Content of speechOutrageous in the view of the jury, and of all decent people. Outrageous in the view of the University of Maryland administration, and harshly condemned by many leading political and religious actors, of many denominations.
3. Impact of speech on the distressed personMillions of dollars' worth of emotional distress (as found by jury). Serious emotional distress, which interferes with students' focus on their studies, and perhaps their eventual academic performance (as found by University, and as testified to by offended students).
4. Impact of speech exacerbated byFather's grief at his son's death. Muslim students' sense that they and their religion are held in contempt by many classmates and other Americans.
5. Effect of speakers' statusFather can at least feel that the speakers are a tiny and hated minority, and the speakers' views are reviled by his fellow citizens. Muslim students reasonably suspect that the speakers represent a substantial minority of Americans, and the speakers' views are agreed with or even admired by many.
6. Alternative avenues for speechThe Phelpsians might not have been held liable if they had picketed in a different place or time — much more than 1000 feet from the funeral, or when no funeral was in progress (though the emotional distress tort didn't require the jury to draw such a distinction). "The constitutional value of speech that [is] intended to cause severe emotional distress is what, exactly? That valuable ideas may not be susceptible [to] expression any other way? Doesn't the fact that we accept time, place and manner restrictions suggest that we don't buy that reasoning?" The students would not have been disciplined if they had expressed their views in a different place or using a different manner — off campus, or not using the Mohammed cartoons. "The constitutional value of speech that [intentionally, knowingly, or recklessly blasphemes against some people's revered religious lieaders] is what, exactly? That valuable ideas may not be susceptible [to] expression any other way? Doesn't the fact that we accept time, place and manner restrictions suggest that we don't buy that reasoning?" And now that we have abandoned as to Phelps the general requirement that "time, place, and manner" restrictions be content-neutral, this argument is even stronger.
7. Targeting towards the distressedThe Phelpsians were generally speaking about America, God, and homosexuality, but in a way likely intended to tie their argument to the private figure plaintiff's son's funeral (again, the emotional distress tort didn't require the jury to rest their verdict on this conclusion). The students were generally speaking about Islam, but in a way that may have been intended to confront their private figure Muslim classmates, and that was in any event reckless about whether their Muslim classmates would see the speech and be distressed by it.
8. Intrusion on privacyWhile the speech was on a public street, it was 1000 feet away from a funeral, which was a private activity. While the speech was at a public place in a public university, the speech was 1000 feet or less away from the dorms, which contain people's private homes.
9. Tendency of speech to cause violent reaction by the distressedIt's possible that people would beat up the Phelpsians. There've been many violent incidents, some deadly, caused by outrage over the speech, though fortunately so far only outside the U.S.
10. Supposedly countervailing private rightsRestricting this speech is fine because "the right to mourn one's dead child in peace would seem to be protected by the other part of the First Amendment having to do with free exercise of religion. (Government action being implicated because ... family and friends of the deceased [are legally] prevented from, or punished for, exercising their natural right to chase the protesters out of sight or hearing of the funeral.)" Restricting this speech is fine because "the right to [not be exposed to deeply blasphemous attacks on one's religion] would seem to be protected by the other part of the First Amendment having to do with free exercise of religion. (Government action being implicated because ... Muslim students [are legally] be prevented from, or punished for, exercising their natural right to chase the [cartoon displayers] out of sight or hearing of [their paths home to their dorm rooms, classrooms, or mosques].)"
11. Protecting individuals who are distressed"Free speech isn't speech without consequences. It seems very clear that some speech may in fact inflict actual damages on an otherwise innocent individual. This is especially true for non-factual opinion speech directed at an otherwise private person. Why is the innocent target the party that must [bear] responsibility for the damage?" "Free speech isn't speech without consequences. It seems very clear that some speech may in fact inflict actual damages on an otherwise innocent individual. This is especially true for non-factual opinion speech [directed at, or recklessly waved in front of] an otherwise private person. Why is the innocent target the party that must [bear] responsibility for the damage?"
12. Harm inflicted by speech"[S]peech isn't the issue here except that it was the Phelpsians' weapon of choice in committing battery. The First Amendment no more protects a right to do this than the Second Amendment protects one to commit murder." "[S]peech isn't the issue here except that it was the [students'] weapon of choice in [effectively slapping their Muslim classmates' faces or spitting in their eyes]. The First Amendment no more protects a right to do this than the Second Amendment protects one to commit murder [or battery or what have you]."
13. The need for social consensus on minimum standards of decency"Society rests, not on law but on at least a rough consensus of what proper behavior is: the Phelpsians are far beyond the Pale." Now that we've established the need to restrict speech that falls beyond the Pale, we need to make clear that this speech — which is just as outrageous and distressing to our Muslim fellow citizens as funeral picketing is to us — is equally beyond the Pale. Otherwise, our failure to equally suppress the Mohammed cartoons will itself harm Muslims, by showing them that we don't take their most deeply felt concerns as seriously as we take our own.
14. TraditionThe intentional infliction of emotional distress tort has been around for decades. Blasphemy laws have been around for centuries, and were in fact used in 1800s America to restrict offensive religious speech.

Given this, do you think that upholding the verdict against the Phelpsians would pose no risk of strengthening the university's hand in restricting the Mohammed cartoons? Don't imagine what would happen if you were asked to make the judgment. Ask what is likely to be done by administrators, judges, and jurors who may well differ from you. Are you confident that a court would indeed distinguish the two scenarios (perhaps under rubrics 7 or 8) — or do you think that, once the Phelpsians' speech is held to be unprotected, the court would defer to the university's decision, on the theory that the two kinds of speech are similar enough even though not identical?

Do you perhaps think that, even if there is such a risk, restricting the Phelpsians' speech is so important that it justifies running that risk? Or do you think that the extra risk is a feature rather than a bug, since universities — and others — should indeed have more power to punish blasphemous, severely distressing criticisms of others' religions, when such criticism is seen by many as being "outrageous"?

As you might gather, I think it's better to protect the Phelpsians' speech, appalling as it is, than to allow its restriction — because by allowing the restriction, we'd be giving a powerful extra tool to those who would restrict a great deal of other speech.

48 Comments