The Westboro Baptist Church is known for being nuisance and causing trouble, however, the church has constantly maintained that their actions, whether viewed as disgusting or not, are fully legal. On March 10, 2007, Westboro picketed the funeral of Marine Lance Corporal Matthew Snyder, who was killed in Iraq in the line of duty. The signs they displayed included sayings such as,.” Thank God for Dead Soldiers,” “Fags Doom Nations,” “America is Doomed,” “Priests Rape Boys,” and “You’re Going to Hell”.
This angered Albert Snyder, the grieving father of Matthew, and ultimately caused him to take Westboro to court, claiming “intentional infliction of emotional distress, intrusion upon seclusion and civil conspiracy,” by Westboro. This set the stage for a landmark United States Supreme Court case that lead to a 8-1 decision ruling in favor of Westboro Baptist Church.
As inhumane as the actions by Westboro may have been, they were fully legal in the eyes of law, which is why the majority rule in favor of Westboro. Although it was an 8-1 decision, it wasn’t an easy one by any means.
The opinion, as told by Chief Justice John Roberts, revolved around the question whether the First Amendment shields the church members from tort liability for their speech in this case.
Westboro had previously notified authorities about their intention to protest the service. Upon arrival, the picketers followed the police instructions and compiled within a 10- by 25-foot plot of public land adjacent to a public street, behind a temporary fence, approximately 1,000 feet away from the funeral.
It’s also important to note that none of the picketers left their public land, meaning that none actually went to the funeral. Also, according to Justice Roberts, “They (Westboro) did not yell or use profanity, and there was no violence associated with the picketing.”
Although Snyder filed for intrusion upon seclusion and emotional distress against Westboro, he could only see the tops of the signs as he drove to the funeral, not during the funeral. Furthermore, he did not see what was written on the signs until later that night after watching a news broadcast that covered the event.
On the other hand, it’s no doubt that Snyder endured some emotional distress. In fact, expert witnesses testified that Snyder’s emotional anguish from the picketing had resulted in severe depression and had exacerbated pre-existing health conditions. However, this didn’t change the fact that, according to the court, “Westboro’s statements were entitled to First Amendment protection because those statements were on matters of public concern, were not provably false, and were expressed solely through hyperbolic rhetoric.”
This was important because in order to succeed on a claim for intentional infliction of emotional distress in Maryland, “a plaintiff must demonstrate that the defendant intentionally or recklessly engaged in extreme and outrageous conduct that caused the plaintiff to suffer severe emotional distress.”
In regards to the First Amendment, “not all speech is of equal importance,” stated Justice Roberts. In other words, the power of the First Amendment really depends on the circumstance of the case as well as whether the speech is of public or private concern.
With that said, the court asserted that speech deals with matters of public concern when it “can be fairly considered as relating to any matter of politi- cal, social, or other concern to the community,” Connick, supra, at 146, or when it “is a subject of legitimate news interest; that is, a subject of general interest and of value and concern to the public,” San Diego, supra, at 83–84.
On the other hand, speech that deals with matters of a private concern, for example, can be seen in the opinion in Dun & Bradstreet. In this case, the speech was about an individual’s credit score, essentially of no public issue.
With both of those examples at hand, it was time to determine whether Westboro’s speech was of public or private matter. In order to do so, the court had to examine the “content, form, and context” of Westboro’s speech.
Upon further analysis, it was concluded that the “content” of Westboro’s signs plainly relates to broad issues of interest to society at large, rather than matters of “purely private concern.” In addition, although Snyder contended that the “context” of the speech and its connection with his son’s funeral made the speech a matter of private rather than public concern, the court concluded that since Westboro was on public land, their speech was “fairly characterized as constituting speech on a matter of public concern,” meaning that the funeral setting did not alter that conclusion.
Snyder continued to argue, claiming that Westboro mounted a personal attack on Snyder and his family, and then attempted to “immunize their conduct by claiming that they were actually protesting the United States’ tolerance of homosexuality or the supposed evils of the Catholic Church.”
In response, the court claimed that, “There was no pre-existing relationship or conflict between Westboro and Snyder that might suggest Westboro’s speech on public matters was intended to mask an attack on Snyder over a private matter.” With that said, the fact that Westboro had actively engaged in speaking on the subjects addressed in its picketing long before it became aware of Matthew Snyder also supported this idea.
The court also made sure to clarify that even protected speech is not equally permissible, as speech is always subject to “reasonable time, place, or manner restrictions”. However, being that Westboro notified authorities prior to their arrival, followed the authority’s guidelines, was at least 1,000 feet away from the service and their was no shouting or violence, their speech was entitled to special protection under the First Amendment, regardless of whether the speech is “upsetting or arouses contempt,” held the court.
Synder also contended that, “Westboro is not immunized from liability for intrusion upon seclusion because Snyder was a member of a captive audience at his son’s funeral, even Westboro’s speech is entitled to First Amendment protection.”
Still, the court did not agree, asserting that, “The Constitution does not permit the government to decide which types of otherwise protected speech are sufficiently offensive to require protection for the unwilling listener or viewer. Rather, … the burden normally falls upon the viewer to avoid further bombardment of [his] sensibilities simply by averting [his] eyes.” In other words, the court was re-emphasizing the idea that the government is now allowed to decide what is offensive and what is not, especially in this particular situation.
In the end, the court’s vote, as mentioned, was narrow and in favor of Westboro. They made sure to assure Synder that Westboro’s funeral picketing was certainly a hurtful act and did “inflict great pain,” however, they also added that the pain caused was irrelevant as “Westboro addressed matters of public import on public property, in a peaceful manner, in full compliance with the guidance of local officials.” This is what ultimately affirmed the judgment of the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit.
Justice Stephen Breyer, the concurrent, also agreed with the court and joined its opinion, standing behind the idea that, “The First Amendment protects the picketing that occurred here, primarily because the picketing addressed matters of public concern.”
However, while Justice Breyer agreed with the court’s decision, he also stated that “even though the picketing addressed matters of public concern, he did not believe that our First Amendment analysis can stop at that point.” Furthermore, Justice Breyer added that, “A state can sometimes regulate picketing, even picketing on matters of public concern, as seen in Frisby v. Schultz, 487 U. S. 474 (1988).”
To further support his concurrence, Justice Breyer added that an example of a state being allowed to regulate picketing would be if the protesters were to use physical violence, which would ultimately result in them no longer being protected by the the First Amendment. Justice Breyer stressed the importance of this as he claimed, “In some circumstances the use of certain words as means would be similarly unprotected.”
The dissent, as by Justice Samuel Alito, recognized the ideas of Justice Breyer’s concurrence. In fact, Alito claimed that, “The speech, like an assault, seriously harmed a private individual,” therefore implying that Westboro not be protected.
“Petitioner Albert Snyder is not a public figure. He is simply a parent whose son, Marine Lance Corporal Matthew Snyder, was killed in Iraq,” opened Justice Alito, “Mr. Snyder wanted what is surely the right of any parent who experiences such an incalculable loss: to bury his son in peace. But respondents, members of the Westboro Baptist Church, deprived him of that elementary right.”
Furthermore, Justice Alito added that, “The Court now holds that the First Amendment protected respondents’ right to brutalize Mr. Snyder. I cannot agree.”
Justice Alito made sure to support the power of the First Amendment, stating that, “The First Amendment ensures that Westboro has almost limitless opportunities to express their views.”
However, he also claimed that although the First Amendment allows them to publish books, appear on television, post messages and even peacefully picket, “It does not allow them to intentionally inflict severe emotional injury on private persons at a time of intense emotional sensitivity by launching vicious verbal attacks that make no contribution to public debate.”
Continuing his rant, “On the morning of Matthew Snyder’s funeral, respondents could have chosen to stage their protest at countless locations. They could have picketed the United States Capitol, the White House, the Supreme Court, the Pentagon, or any of the more than 5,600 military recruiting stations in this country.” argued Justice Alito.
“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,” concluded Justice Alito, “I therefore respectfully dissent.”
In the end, the case of Snyder v. Phelps came down to what’s right and what’s wrong, what’s humane and what’s inhumane and where the First Amendment no longer protects a speech.
On that note, unfortunately, for the Snyder family, it is very difficult to challenge the First Amendment in the court of law, as it is a constitutional right and a cornerstone of the United States of America. Although it was an 8-1 decision in favor of Westboro, it was never believed once that Westboro’s actions were humane and acceptable under any circumstance. However, as seen several times throughout U.S. Supreme Court history, the First Amendment proved once again that it is the most difficult amendment to dispute.