The infamous First Amendment has yet again withstood it’s ground and prevailed in court after an 8-1 decision voted that speech on a matter of public concern, on a public street, regardless of whether the speech is interpreted as offensive or not, is protected by the First Amendment.
In other words, whether it’s a funeral, baby shower, parade, birthday party, memorial service, or any other type of event, protestors are allowed to picket and voice whatever opinions they please as long as they too are on public property, regardless of how nasty, outrageous and disgusting their signs, words, or intentions may be.
For the Snyder family, they learned this the hard way during a rollercoaster court case that put a spotlight over the First Amendment and where it lies on the spectrum of harassment, public speech, slander, libel, defamation, intentional infliction, and several other types of violations.
Albert Synder was at the funeral of his fallen son, Marine Lance Corporal Matthew Snyder, who was killed in the line of duty, when members of the Westboro Baptist Church began picketing and protesting the funeral approximately 1,000 feet from where the service had taken place. Although the protestors, according to it’s definition, displayed their pickets “peacefully”, what was written on the signs was far from peaceful. The signs stated, “Thank God for Dead Soldiers,” “Fags Doom Nations,” “America is Doomed,” “Priests Rape Boys” and “You’re Going to Hell, which is exactly why this court case has sent ripples throughout the United States and the entire court system.
For those unaware, this wasn’t Westboro Baptist Church’s first rodeo. In fact, the Westboro Baptist Church has picketed military funerals to communicate its belief that God hates the United States for its tolerance of homosexuality, particularly in America’s military, for the past 20 years. With that said, Fred Phelps, the founder of the church, as well as six of his relatives, traveled to Maryland to picket another funeral of a deceased soldier, little did they know they were messing with the wrong father.
This caused the grieving father to file a diversity action against Phelps, the six other parishioners, who happened to be Phelps’ relatives, and Westboro Baptist Church. Snyder claimed that the protest was an act of “intentional infliction of emotional distress, intrusion upon seclusion, and civil conspiracy.”
At first, a jury ruled in favor of Snyder, holding Westboro accountable for millions of dollars in punitive and compensatory damages. However, being aware of their civil rights after the knowledge gained from thousands of their other previous pickets and protests, Westboro challenged the verdict by simply claiming that the First Amendment “fully protected” their speech. After further review, Westboro’s challenge only lead to a reduction of the punitive damage fees.
Persistent, Westboro took the case to the Supreme Court, which is where the First Amendment, the definition of emotional distress, the power of public property, the importance of context, and what defines a message as personal, were all deeply analyzed and questioned.
Westboro, like they had done previously, argued that the First Amendment shielded them from any liabilities. Furthermore, Westboro argued that, “The Free Speech Clause of the First Amendment can serve as a defense in state tort suits, including suits for intentional infliction of emotional distress.” They especially emphasized this idea because their protest was on public property, driven by their own public opinion, and in regards to a public issue or concern, which is ultimately what the First Amendment is meant to protect.
This initial issue with this argument was that the definition of what establishes speech on matters of public concern was not well defined. Nonetheless, the court ruled that something can be classified as a public concern when it can “be fairly considered as relating to any matter of political, social, or other concern to the community,” or when it “is a subject of general interest and of value and concern to the public.”
This ultimately meant that a statement’s questionably controversial or inappropriate manner is irrelevant to the question as long as it deals with a matter of public concern, therefore ruling in the favor of Westboro.
Although it can be difficult differentiating something from a public or private concern, the court closely examined the context of Westboro’s speech, form, and context, thus coming to the conclusion that their signs related to a public matter.
To further support this, the court stated that, “The placards highlighted issues of public import—the political and moral conduct of the United States and its citizens, the fate of the Nation, homosexuality in the military, and scandals involving the Catholic clergy—and Westboro conveyed its views on those issues in a manner designed to reach as broad a public audience as possible.”
Snyder then argued the context in which the words and signs were constructed, claiming that they were in a personal manner since they were directly aimed towards his late son, which drew questions in regards to what speech is and what speech isn’t protected by the First Amendment. Snyder continued to push this idea as he argued that since the signs used the word “you”, they were referring to Matthew Snyder directly, consequently making Westboro liable because the messages were personalized.
Again, the court ruled in favor of Westboro as the defense argued that “Westboro had been actively engaged in speaking on the subjects addressed in its picketing long before it became aware of Matthew Snyder.”
This note quickly dismissed any claims of Westboro’s actions being personalized. Westboro continued to support this idea as they argued that, “The signs reflected Westboro’s condemnation of much in modern society”, therefore making the attacks non-personal and rendering them free from any liabilities.
The pattern of Snyder’s arguments being shut down continued as Westboro’s ability to picket and protest was protected, especially since Maryland had no law that restricted funeral picketing. Although free speech isn’t always permissible, as it is always “subject to reasonable time, place, or manner restrictions”, the court ruled that Westboro stayed “well away” from the service and that there is “no indication that the picketing interfered with the funeral service itself”, meaning that any messages or actions, whether viewed as outrageous or not, still remain irrelevant to the question.
In the end, Westboro successfully defended the place, context, and manner in which their protest was being questioned. Although the signs were hurtful and outrageous, especially during a funeral, it was determined by the court that, “Westboro still addressed matters of public import on public property, in a peaceful manner, in full compliance with the guidance of local officials. It did not disrupt Mathew Snyder’s funeral, and its choice to picket at that time and place did not alter the nature of its speech.” With that said, the court ruled in favor of Westboro and that Westboro be shielded from any liability for it’s picketing in this specific case, thereby upholding the Fourth Circuit’s original decision.
Because of the nature and severity of the case, many pieces of evidence, law, and rulings from similar court cases were used. In fact, pieces from Frisby v. Schultz, Clark v. Community for Creative Non-Violence, Madsen v. Women’s Health Center, Inc., Rowan v. Post Office Dept., Hustler Magazine, Inc. v. Falwell, and many others. Each case either dealt with protests, intentional infliction, public property, public speech, freedom of speech, the context of speech, or other aspects that were relevant in finding a final verdict for this specific case.
Although the actions of Westboro Baptist Church were outrageous and considerably inhumane, especially during the funeral of a solider that was killed in the line of duty, piece after piece, evidence after evidence, and argument after argument proved that once again the First Amendment is the most difficult amendment to challenge in the court of law.
When it’s all said and done, the fine line between what is right and what is wrong, what is nice and what is mean, and what is normal and what is outrageous, doesn’t exist in the eyes of the First Amendment.