For Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito, the defense of First Amendment rights expressed by today's majority ruling in the Westboro Baptist Church case goes too far.
The 8-1 decision found that the fringe church's hate-filled picketing at the funeral of a Marine corporal killed in Iraq qualified as public discourse protected by the First Amendment. Church members claim soldiers' deaths are God's punishment for U.S. tolerance of homosexuality.
But in staking out his lone dissent, Alito suggested that when publicly offensive speech is also -- and perhaps primarily -- personally painful, the Constitution doesn't protect it.
"Our profound national commitment to free and open debate is not a license for the vicious verbal assault that occurred in this case," Alito wrote.
"Mr. Snyder wanted what is surely the right of any parent who experiences such an incalculable loss: to bury his son in peace," he added. "But respondents, members of the Westboro Baptist Church, deprived him of that elementary right."
Alito's thinking in Snyder v. Phelps breaks from the majority, including Roberts and other conservatives usually among his allies, on several finer legal points.
But the dissent stands out most because it's one of the most fully developed expressions of Alito's own First Amendment views in his five years on the high court, and because he tackles what the justices have long referred to as the slippery slope of restraining political speech.
"If you start defining and banning offensive speech because someone doesn't like it, it's hard to draw the line, and one day you wake up and find you don't have much protected speech," said Stephen Wermiel, associate director of the Summer Institute on Law and Government at the American University Washington College of Law.
"Alito doesn't disagree with that but finds that this is where you can draw the line," Wermiel told AOL News.
While Roberts argues that the content of Westboro's protest signs "plainly relates to public, rather than private, matters," Alito seems to find that the public intention doesn't negate the personal damage that was inflicted.
"Respondents brutally attacked Matthew Snyder, and this attack, which was almost certain to inflict injury, was central to respondents' well-practiced strategy for attracting public attention," Alito wrote.
"Respondents' outrageous conduct caused petitioner great injury, and the court now compounds that injury by depriving petitioner of a judgment that acknowledges the wrong he suffered," he added. "In order to have a society in which public issues can be openly and vigorously debated, it is not necessary to allow the brutalization of innocent victims like petitioner."
This isn't the first time Alito has opposed his eight colleagues with a greater willingness to curtail speech.
In last year's United States v. Stevens ruling, when the court struck down a federal law banning videos that depict cruelty to animals as too broad a restriction of speech, Alito was also the sole dissenter. He compared the so-called "crush" videos to constitutionally unprotected child pornography.
Yet free speech cases of this nature are so rare that the Snyder and Stevens dissents are conspicuous.
"We're seeing a pattern that Alito is sort of laying out his own vision of the First Amendment that is less tolerant of speech that's at the margins, speech that may be offensive or may contain offensive depictions of things like animal cruelty and so on," Wermiel said. "He's giving us a strong statement that you don't have to protect all that kind of marginal speech in order to protect a genuine dialogue in civil society."