What is a dissenting opinion, and what did Justice Alito say in his?

First Amendment Assignment

As we have learned from our reading, the meaning of the Constitution is constantly being revised and refined by federal court decisions – not just the landmark cases described in your book, but hundreds of cases that work their way through the court system every year.

The First Amendment to our Constitution guarantees the freedom of speech, but – as with other civil liberties – that freedom is not absolute. You can’t incite specific acts of violence. You can’t reveal military secrets during wartime. You can’t slander people without consequence. You can, however, express just about any opinion you wish, even when that opinion causes great distress to other citizens. An example is the Westboro Baptist Church, a small church near Topeka, Kansas, whose members protest against homosexuality at the funerals of American soldiers.

In March, 2010, the U.S. Supreme Court granted certiorari (look it up) in a case entitled Snyder v. Phelps, concerning whether the First Amendment protects the pastor (Phelps) and members of Westboro from an “intentional infliction of emotional distress” lawsuit filed by the father (Snyder) of a fallen soldier whose funeral was the subject of a protest rally. The Court listened to oral arguments in October, and issued an 8-1 opinion on March 2, 2011.

Please read the majority opinion and the dissenting opinion all the way through. Submit a brief (three to five pages) essay about the case. Some issues to make sure you cover:

  1. What is the case about?
  2. What were the key issues?
  3. What did Supreme Court majority decide and why?
  4. What is a dissenting opinion, and what did Justice Alito say in his?
  5. If you were on the Supreme Court, how would you rule in this case, and why?
  6. In your opinion, should there be any limits on the freedom of speech? If so, what should they be, and why?

Submit this assignment in Microsoft Word. Cite your sources.


Additional Resources

The Cornell law school has a good background piece on the issues of the case.

The SCOTUSblog is a great source of information about every Supreme Court case (There’s even an audio link where you can listen to the actual oral arguments before the court!).

Time Magazine profiled this case, as did the Washington Post and the New York Times.


I like the Cornell Law School website (http://supct.law.cornell.edu/supct/ ) for looking up cases, but you can use the official Supreme Court site (http://www.supremecourtus.gov/ ) instead.

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