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Snyder v. Phelps
What’s at stake?
Tort lawsuits that threaten First Amendment freedom of speech.
Whether a judgment for intentional infliction of emotional distress for a lawful funeral protest violates First Amendment free speech protections.
March 2, 2011
8-1 in favor of Phelps. Chief Justice Roberts delivered the opinion; Justice Breyer filed a concurring opinion; Justice Alito filed a dissenting opinion.
What the court held:
The Supreme Court held that even vile and offensive speech enjoys First Amendment protection from tort liability when it addresses matters of public import on public property in a peaceful manner.
Fred Phelps, founder of the fundamentalist Westboro Baptist Church, staged a protest at the funeral of Matthew Snyder, a Marine killed in Iraq. Though Snyder was not gay, the protesters’ message was focused on God’s hatred of America for its tolerance of homosexuality. Members of Phelps’ “congregation” carried signs bearing messages such as “God Hates You” and “You’re Going to Hell.” The protestors complied with regulations requiring them to stay a certain distance from the funeral, but the protest was obviously offensive and distressful for Snyder’s family. The family sued Phelps and won a judgment for intentional infliction of emotional distress, intrusion upon seclusion and civil conspiracy to commit both torts. On appeal, the Fourth Circuit dismissed the judgment, holding that the protest was protected First Amendment speech.
The Supreme Court upheld the Fourth Circuit’s ruling and stated that First Amendment protection largely turns on whether the speech in question is of public or private concern. The court held that while the church’s discussion of issues such as homosexuality in the military and the conduct of the United States “may fall short of refined social or political commentary, the issues they highlight…are matters of public import.” The court also stated that the church’s chosen location for conducting the protests, a public place adjacent to a public street, “occupies a special position in terms of First Amendment protection.” Further protection is warranted because its members fully complied with police guidance on where the picketing could be staged and were neither unruly nor violent. This ruling also overturns the trial court’s verdict against the church for intrusion upon seclusion because the protestors stayed far away from the funeral and did not interfere with the service itself.
If the Supreme Court had ruled for the family, it could have meant that people in far less offensive situations would be able to sue or threaten to sue people for expressing unpopular opinions. The court instead stated that, “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.”
- New York Times: Justices Rule for Protestors at Military Funerals
- New York Times: Even Hurtful Speech
- Washington Post: The Right to Even Ugly Free Speech
- Brief for Petitioner Albert Snyder
- Brief for Respondent Fred W. Phelps, Sr., Shirley L. Phelps-Roper, Rebekah A. Phelps-Davis, and Westboro Baptist Church, Inc.
- Reply Brief for Petitioner Albert Snyder
- Brief for Senators Harry Reid and Mitch McConnell and 40 Other Members of the U.S. Senate in Support of Petitioner
- Brief for the Veterans of Foreign Wars of the United States in Support of Petitioner
- Brief for the American Legion in Support of Petitioner
- Brief for the John Marshall Law School Veterans Legal Support Center & Clinic and the Chicago School of Professional Psychology in Support of Petitioner
- Brief for State of Kansas and 47 Other States and the District of Columbia in Support of Petitioner
- Brief for Thomas Jefferson Center for the Protection of Free Expression, The Marion B. Brechner First Amendment Project, the National Coalition Against Censorship, and the Pennsylvania Center for the First Amendment in Support of Respondent
- Brief for the Center for Constitutional Jurisprudence in Support of Neither Party Suggesting Reversal
- Brief for the American Center for Law and Justice in Support of Neither Party
- Brief for the Anti-Defamation League in Support of Neither Party
- Brief for Scholars of First Amendment Law in Support of Respondent
- Brief for the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press and Twenty-one News Media Organizations in Support of Respondent
- Brief for Liberty Counsel in Support of Respondent
- Brief for American Civil Liberties Union and the American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland in Support of Respondent
- Brief for The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education and Law Professors Ash Bhagwat, David Post, Martin Redish, Nadine Strossen, and Eugene Volokh in Support of Respondent