Funeral Protest Case to Test Limits of First Amendment

One congregation member from the Westboro Baptist Church.

On Wednesday the Supreme Court of the United States started hearing arguments in the case Snyder v. Phelps in which a fundamentalist Baptist church has appealed an adverse five million dollar award for IIED on grounds that the judgment violates its First Amendment right to free speech.  The case arises out of the funeral of Lance Corporal Matthew Snyder, a U.S. Marine killed on active duty in Iraq in 2006, when members of the Westboro Baptist Church showed up holding signs that said “God Hates You,” “America is Doomed,” “Semper Fi Fags,” and “Thank God for Dead Soldiers.”  The grieving parents were understandably distraught by the display and sued the Westboro Baptist Church for Intentional Infliction of Emotional Distress (IIED), Invasion of Privacy by Intrusion on Seclusion, and Conspiracy.

The Westboro Baptist Church is a source of “Fire and Brimstone” preaching where pastors claim that the death of American soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan is divine retribution visited on America for its ungodly tolerance of homosexuality and the presence of gays in the military.  Westboro Baptist Church has gained a reputation for staging regular protests at the funerals of U.S. soldiers in order to draw attention to their message.  Their website, www.godhatesfags.com, has seen more traffic with the recent Supreme Court battle than ever before.

The late Lance Corporal Matthew Snyder.

The Snyder family won their civil action against the Westboro Baptist Church.  The District Court for the District of Maryland found in favor of the plaintiffs in Snyder v. Phelps, 533 F.Supp.2d 567 (2008), and awarded them with a $10.9 million dollar judgment.  This judgment was subsequently reduced down to five million dollars on a demurrer motion by Westboro.  When Westboro appealed to the Fourth Circuit on grounds that their speech was constitutionally protected, they got the judgment vacated.   The United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit held in Snyder v. Phelps, 580 F.3d 206 that Westboro’s speech, while offensive and tortious, was protected by the First Amendment and the judgment of the District Court violated the First Amendment’s freedom of speech clause.  Wrote the Fourth Circuit: “[b]ecause the judgment attaches tort liability to constitutionally protected speech, the district court erred in declining to award [Westboro] judgment as a matter of law.”

Westboro Baptist Church's free expression.

The Snyder family petitioned for and were granted certiorari.  The Supreme Court took the case to determine the burning question of constitutional law of whether the First Amendment protects protestors at a military funeral from tort liability for intentionally inflicting emotional distress on the family of the deceased.  While the Snyder family, the petitioner, argues that this kind of intentionally tortious conduct is outside of the protection of the First Amendment, Westboro has claimed the constitutional protection and denies that the Snyder family was a “captive audience” at the funeral site.

Hundreds of political commentators have already added commentary to the ongoing battle.  Senators Harry Reid and Mitch McConnell co-wrote an amicus brief with 40 other senators on behalf of the Snyder family.  The ACLU filed another amicus brief on the behalf of the Westboro Baptist Church.  Picketers have already taken stance outside of the Supreme Court, further drumming up publicity in the heated battle over the limits of the First Amendment.  The Supreme Court began hearing oral arguments on Wednesday.  Justice Alito commented that online posts by the Westboro church indicated a purposeful, targeted attack at the Snyder family and demonstrated what the protestors meant by “God Hates You” on their possibly ambiguous signs.

Eagleionline Question(s) of the day: Does the First Amendment extend to protect statements that intentionally inflict emotional distress?  Should it matter that the grieving family could be a “captive audience” or that the protestors harassed the grieving family of a dead soldier at his grave site?

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