Chief Justice Roberts and the First Amendment

The nomination of John G. Roberts to the Supreme Court in 2005 caused considerable protest among politicians and law experts, many of whom voiced concerns over Roberts’ typically conservative stance in his decisions.

The First Amendment Center recently analyzed Roberts’ decisions regarding First Amendment cases, starting with the idea the “Conservatives are often portrayed as hostile or indifferent to First Amendment issues.” They found that Roberts “has not been a disaster — far from it.”

Among Roberts’ opinions that the First Amendment Center analyzed was the following passage from Roberts’ majority opinion in Snyder v. Phelps, the recent landmark decision regarding the Westboro Baptist Church:

“Speech is powerful. It can stir people to action, move them to tears of both joy and sorrow, and — as it did here — inflict great pain. On the facts before us, we cannot react to that pain by punishing the speaker. 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.”

While the speech of the Westboro group is recognized by most as abominable, Roberts’ recognizes the even objectionable speech is protected by the First Amendment.

Why is Roberts’ stance on the First Amendment important to comics? While his opinion in Snyder v. Phelps is tied to the debate of public issues, it demonstrates that Roberts understands that unpopular speech and art deserve protection under the First Amendment, even when many people are offended by that speech or art. Should a First Amendment case regarding comics reach the Supreme Court, we may find a supporter in Chief Justice Roberts.

You can read the analysis of Roberts’ decisions regarding the First Amendment here.