Snyder v. Phelps
562 U.S. ___ (2011)

Annotate this Case

SYLLABUS
OCTOBER TERM, 2010
SNYDER V. PHELPS


SUPREME COURT OF THE UNITED STATES

SNYDER v. PHELPS et al.

certiorari to the united states court of appeals for the fourth circuit

No. 09–751. Argued October 6, 2010—Decided March 2, 2011

For the past 20 years, the congregation of 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. The church’s picketing has also condemned the Catholic Church for scandals involving its clergy. Fred Phelps, who founded the church, and six Westboro Baptist parishioners (all relatives of Phelps) traveled to Maryland to picket the funeral of Marine Lance Corporal Matthew Snyder, who was killed in Iraq in the line of duty. The picketing took place on public land approximately 1,000 feet from the church where the funeral was held, in accordance with guidance from local law enforcement officers. The picketers peacefully displayed their signs—stating, e.g., “Thank God for Dead Soldiers,” “Fags Doom Nations,” “America is Doomed,” “Priests Rape Boys,” and “You’re Going to Hell”—for about 30 minutes before the funeral began. Matthew Snyder’s father (Snyder), petitioner here, saw the tops of the picketers’ signs when driving to the funeral, but did not learn what was written on the signs until watching a news broadcast later that night.

      Snyder filed a diversity action against Phelps, his daughters—who participated in the picketing—and the church (collectively Westboro) alleging, as relevant here, state tort claims of intentional infliction of emotional distress, intrusion upon seclusion, and civil conspiracy. A jury held Westboro liable for millions of dollars in compensatory and punitive damages. Westboro challenged the verdict as grossly excessive and sought judgment as a matter of law on the ground that the First Amendment fully protected its speech. The District Court reduced the punitive damages award, but left the verdict otherwise intact. The Fourth Circuit reversed, concluding that 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.

Held: The First Amendment shields Westboro from tort liability for its picketing in this case. Pp. 5–15.

   (a) 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. Hustler Magazine, Inc. v. Falwell, 485 U. S. 46, 50-51. Whether the First Amendment prohibits holding Westboro liable for its speech in this case turns largely on whether that speech is of public or private concern, as determined by all the circumstances of the case. “[S]peech on public issues occupies the ‘ “highest rung of the hierarchy of First Amendment values” ’ and is entitled to special protection.” Connick v. Myers, 461 U. S. 138, 145. Although the boundaries of what constitutes speech on matters of public concern are not well defined, this Court has said that speech is of public concern when it can “be fairly considered as relating to any matter of political, social, or other concern to the community,” id., at 146, or when it “is a subject of general interest and of value and concern to the public,” San Diego v. Roe, 543 U. S. 77, 83–84. A statement’s arguably “inappropriate or controversial character … is irrelevant to the question whether it deals with a matter of public concern.” Rankin v. McPherson, 483 U. S. 378, 387. Pp. 5–7.

   To determine whether speech is of public or private concern, this Court must independently examine the “ ‘content, form, and context,’ ” of the speech “ ‘as revealed by the whole record.’ ” Dun & Bradstreet, Inc. v. Greenmoss Builders, Inc., 472 U. S. 749, 761. In considering content, form, and context, no factor is dispositive, and it is necessary to evaluate all aspects of the speech. Pp. 7–8.

   The “content” of Westboro’s signs plainly relates to public, rather than private, matters. 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. Even if a few of the signs were viewed as containing messages related to a particular individual, that would not change the fact that the dominant theme of Westboro’s demonstration spoke to broader public issues. P. 8.

   The “context” of the speech—its connection with Matthew Snyder’s funeral—cannot by itself transform the nature of Westboro’s speech. The signs reflected Westboro’s condemnation of much in modern society, and it cannot be argued that Westboro’s use of speech on public issues was in any way contrived to insulate a personal attack on Snyder from liability. Westboro had been actively engaged in speaking on the subjects addressed in its picketing long before it became aware of Matthew Snyder, and there can be no serious claim that the picketing did not represent Westboro’s honestly held beliefs on public issues. Westboro may have chosen the picket location to increase publicity for its views, and its speech may have been particularly hurtful to Snyder. That does not mean that its speech should be afforded less than full First Amendment protection under the circumstances of this case. Pp. 8–10.

   That said, “ ‘[e]ven protected speech is not equally permissible in all places and at all times.’ ” Frisby v. Schultz, 487 U. S. 474, 479. Westboro’s choice of where and when to conduct its picketing is not beyond the Government’s regulatory reach—it is “subject to reasonable time, place, or manner restrictions.” Clark v. Community for Creative Non-Violence, 468 U. S. 288, 293. The facts here are quite different, however, both with respect to the activity being regulated and the means of restricting those activities, from the few limited situations where the Court has concluded that the location of targeted picketing can be properly regulated under provisions deemed content neutral. Frisby, supra, at 477; Madsen v. Women’s Health Center, Inc., 512 U. S. 753, 768, distinguished. Maryland now has a law restricting funeral picketing but that law was not in effect at the time of these events, so this Court has no occasion to consider whether that law is a “reasonable time, place, or manner restrictio[n]” under the standards announced by this Court. Clark, supra, at 293. Pp. 10–12.

   The “special protection” afforded to what Westboro said, in the whole context of how and where it chose to say it, cannot be overcome by a jury finding that the picketing was “outrageous” for purposes of applying the state law tort of intentional infliction of emotional distress. That would pose too great a danger that the jury would punish Westboro for its views on matters of public concern. For all these reasons, the jury verdict imposing tort liability on Westboro for intentional infliction of emotional distress must be set aside. Pp. 12–13.

   (b) Snyder also may not recover for the tort of intrusion upon seclusion. He argues that he was a member of a captive audience at his son’s funeral, but the captive audience doctrine—which has been applied sparingly, see Rowan v. Post Office Dept., 397 U. S. 728, 736–738; Frisby, supra, at 484–485—should not be expanded to the circumstances here. Westboro stayed well away from the memorial service, Snyder could see no more than the tops of the picketers’ signs, and there is no indication that the picketing interfered with the funeral service itself. Pp. 13–14.

   (c) Because the First Amendment bars Snyder from recovery for intentional infliction of emotional distress or intrusion upon seclusion—the allegedly unlawful activity Westboro conspired to accomplish—Snyder also cannot recover for civil conspiracy based on those torts. P. 14.

   (d) Westboro 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. Because this Nation has chosen to protect even hurtful speech on public issues to ensure that public debate is not stifled, Westboro must be shielded from tort liability for its picketing in this case. Pp. 14–15.

580 F. 3d 206, affirmed.

   Roberts, C. J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which Scalia, Kennedy, Thomas, Ginsburg, Breyer, Sotomayor, and Kagan, JJ., joined. Breyer, J., filed a concurring opinion. Alito, J., filed a dissenting opinion.

Primary Holding
Plaintiffs cannot recover for the tort of emotional distress based on picketing at military funerals because First Amendment protections shield this type of speech.
Facts
After U.S. Marine Matthew A. Snyder was killed during service in Iraq, he was buried near his home in Westminster, Maryland. The Westboro Baptist Church organized and carried out a protest at the funeral to denounce social tolerance of homosexuality in the U.S. While most of the picketers' signs attacked the U.S. and the armed services in general, statements on the Church website criticized Snyder's parents for bringing him up as a Catholic.

The founder of the Westboro Baptist Church, Fred Phelps, was sued by Snyder's father, Albert, together with two of his daughters who were also involved in the Church. While five causes of action initially were brought, the case eventually proceeded only with causes of action based on intrusion upon seclusion, intentional infliction of emotional distress, and civil conspiracy. The Church did not deny what happened but argued that it had followed all of the local rules and not disrupted the funeral. They had remained out of sight from the church and were separated by police and other groups from the mourners. Albert Snyder admitted that he did not see what was written on the signs or the statements on the website until after the funeral, although he had noticed that the signs were there. He presented medical evidence as well as his own testimony on the worsening of his physical condition that had resulted, including aggravated diabetes and severe depression.

In the federal district court, the jury awarded nearly $11 million to Snyder in a combination of compensatory damages, punitive damages, and special damages for causing emotional distress. The Church argued that the judge had improperly instructed the jury on First Amendment protections but was unsuccessful. However, the judge reduced the punitive damages award so that the total was reduced to $5 million, which would strike a less devastating blow to the Church. Snyder then placed liens on many of its key buildings, as well as personal assets belonging to Phelps, to ensure payment of the judgments. Phelps defiantly announced that the Church would continue to picket military funerals.

Procedural History

U.S. District Court for the District of Maryland - 533 F.Supp.2d 567 (D. Md., 2008)

Judgment for the plaintiff. The defendant is liable in tort for $5 million in damages to the plaintiff.

U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit - 580 F.3d 206 (4th Cir., 2009)

Reversed. Since the content of the picketing signs and website could not rationally be taken as assertions of objective fact, they were protected under the First Amendment. The lower court judge also improperly relied on the jury to determine the legal question of First Amendment protection, which should not be given to a fact finder. Snyder also was ordered to pay the Church's court costs, although this amount was covered by others.

Opinions

Majority

  • John G. Roberts, Jr. (Author)
  • Antonin Scalia
  • Anthony M. Kennedy
  • Clarence Thomas
  • Ruth Bader Ginsburg
  • Stephen G. Breyer
  • Sonia Sotomayor
  • Elena Kagan

Stating that a jury finding of outrageousness cannot trump First Amendment protections, Roberts found that the Church's speech was protected in view of its compliance with regulations and the manner in which it disseminated the speech. He was skeptical that it had caused direct harm to the mourners, since the father saw little of the signs, the Church members stayed 1,000 feet from the service, and there was no disruption to the funeral proceeding itself.

Concurrence

  • Stephen G. Breyer (Author)

Separating the protest from the website statements, Breyer stated that his agreement with the majority was related only to the picketing activities.

Dissent

  • Samuel A. Alito, Jr. (Author)

Alito felt that the First Amendment did not protect this type of vicious attack on an individual, which could not fall within the meaning of free speech. The discussion of public issues can be fully articulated without harming innocent people for arbitrary reasons.

Case Commentary

The state later enacted a law restricting picketing at funerals, but the picketers' conduct in this case conformed with the later law. This decision thus remains a valid understanding of the First Amendment's applicability to a wide range of speech addressing public matters in a public setting, even if it is deeply harmful to certain members of the audience.

Some of the Justices in the majority, like Ginsburg, allegedly sympathized with Snyder despite finding that the law did not protect him. Justice John Paul Stevens, who recently had left the bench, stated that he would have joined Alito in dissent.

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