by Robert G. Natelson
Commentators and journalists sometimes describe the current U.S. Supreme Court as “conservative.” But that’s not true if your definition of a conservative justice is a traditional or “originalist” jurist that is, one who applies the Constitution as the American people understood it when they adopted it.
Consider, for example, the Court’s latest First Amendment case. The Court utterly disregarded the true meaning of that amendment, and instead applied a rule almost entirely unrelated to it.
The case was Snyder v. Phelps. The father of a deceased U.S. Marine brought a suit under state common law against some members of the notorious Westboro Baptist Church. As you may have learned from news sources, the Westboro Baptist Church is a tiny congregation with extreme anti-homosexual views. The members regularly picket the funerals of soldiers, displaying signs that attack the military, the United States, and the innocent deceased.
Church members did so in this case, parading hateful signs on public property near the funeral. They also launched unfounded personal attacks against the deceased both at the funeral and over the Internet. The serviceman’s father was so devastated emotionally that he sued them for damages, relying on claims for intentional infliction of emotional distress and for several other common law torts (civil wrongs). The jury found that the father had been deliberately injured, and awarded him damages.
The church members demanded that the verdict be set aside. They argued that the First Amendment Free Speech Clause protected them from liability.
Now whatever you think about Westboro Baptist or the father’s lawsuit, the fact is that the First Amendment, properly understood, was simply irrelevant to the case. The issue should have been a slam dunk for the Court.
The text of the Free Speech Clause reads, “Congress shall make no law . . . abridging the freedom of speech.” That is, the Amendment restricts actions of Congress. Unlike other parts of the Bill of Rights, it applies only to the federal legislature, not to other branches of government. It does not affect the common law, a system of case-by-case precedent built up by judges and juries over the years: a system expressly recognized as legitimate in other parts of the Constitution and Bill of Rights.
Moreover, the First Amendment says absolutely nothing about the states and, in fact, during the 19th century the Court correctly held that the federal Bill of Rights controls only the federal government. (States are bound by their own constitutions’ bills of rights.) True, some scholars argue that the later-adopted Fourteenth Amendment applied the First Amendment to the states, although others argue the contrary. But the Supreme Court has never persuasively explained why it thinks the Fourteenth Amendment imposed the First on the states. And even it did, that would bind only their legislatures, the state analogues of “Congress.” It would not affect the common law.
There’s more: Although you would never know it to read Supreme Court First Amendment decisions, the Founders actually meant something by the phrases “freedom of speech” and “freedom of the press.” Those phrases had specific content. What they meant is explained more fully in my book, The Original Constitution. But what is important here is that they did not prevent civil lawsuits by innocents for harm inflicted by irresponsible people. Among those saying so during the debates over whether to ratify the Constitution was James Wilson, one of the greatest of the Founders. (Wilson was a Framer, a leading Ratifier, and a distinguished lawyer whom George Washington later appointed to the Supreme Court.)
And as if that were not enough, during those debates the document’s supporters represented that tort and contact cases generally remained outside the federal sphere and were reserved exclusively to the states.
Yet in the teeth of text, law, and history, the Court held that the First Amendment prevented the serviceman’s father from collecting a dime.
How could this be?
During the Twentieth Century, “progressive” justices, ignoring text, law, and history, invented new First Amendment rules out of thin air. In the 1960s and ’70s, over the strenuous objections of moderate justices (there were no conservatives then on the bench), progressives largely re-wrote the defamation law that states had applied for two centuries. In the course of their activity, they virtually destroyed the cause of action family members previously could use against those who maliciously “blackened the memory” of the deceased. That may be why the family in this case resorted to claims such as intentional infliction of emotional distress.
If we had any consistently originalist justices on the Court today, they would have voted to overrule the 1960s/70s decisions as a form of usurpation. In other words, they would have applied the Constitution as the people adopted it. Instead, in Snyder v. Phelps all the justices applied the 1960s/70s decisions. There was only one dissenter, Justice Alito, but he merely disagreed as to how to apply them.
Last year when the Left was outraged because the Court struck down some restrictions on corporate participation in politics, I pointed out that the Court was just following the rules that “progressive” activists had invented throughout the Twentieth Century.
That’s what the justices did in the Snyder case, also. Far from the Court being conservative, the fact is that today there is not a single sitting Supreme Court justice who is a consistent originalist, not one.
In private life, Rob Natelson is a long-time conservative/free market activist, but professionally he is a constitutional scholar whose meticulous studies of the Constitution’s original meaning have been published or cited by many top law journals. (See www.umt.edu/law/faculty/natelson.htm.) Most recently, he co-authored The Origins of the Necessary and Proper Clause (Cambridge University Press) and The Original Constitution (Tenth Amendment Center). After a quarter of a century as Professor of Law at the University of Montana, he recently retired to work full time at Colorado’s Independence Institute.