Albert Snyder v Fred W. Phelps, Sr., Et Al.


The issue in the present case was whether the First Amendment shields the church members from tort liability for their speech. Marine Lance Corporal Matthew Snyder was killed in Iraq in the line of duty. Lance Corporal Snyder’s father selected the Catholic church in the Snyders’ hometown of Westminster, Maryland, as the site for his son’s funeral.

 Local newspapers provided notice of the time and location of the service. Fred Phelps (founder of Westboro Baptist Church)  became aware of Matthew Snyder’s funeral and decided to travel to Maryland with six other Westboro Baptist parishioners to picket. On the day of the memorial service, the Westboro congregation members picketed on public land adjacent to public streets near the Maryland State House, the United States Naval Academy, and Matthew Snyder’s funeral. The Westboro picketers carried signs that were largely the same at all three locations. They stated, for instance: “God Hates the USA/Thank God for 9/11,” “America is Doomed,” “Don’t Pray for the USA,” “Thank God for IEDs,” “Thank God for Dead Soldiers,” “Pope in Hell,” “Priests Rape Boys,” “God Hates Fags,”“You’re Going to Hell,” and “God Hates You.”

Snyder filed suit against Phelps, Phelps’s daughters,and the Westboro Baptist Church (collectively Westboro or the church) in the United States District Court for the District of Maryland under that court’s diversity jurisdiction. Snyder alleged five state tort law claims: defamation, publicity given to private life, intentional infliction of emotional distress, intrusion upon seclusion, and civil conspiracy. Westboro moved for summary judgment contending, in part, that the church’s speech was insulated from liability by the First Amendment. The District Court awarded Westboro summary judgment on Snyder’s claims for defamation and publicity given to private life, concluding that Snyder could not prove the necessary elements of those torts.  A trial was held on the remaining claims. At trial, Snyder described the severity of his emotional injuries. Expert witnesses testified that Snyder’s emotional anguish had resulted in severe depression and had exacerbated preexisting health conditions. A jury found for Snyder on the intentional infliction of emotional distress, intrusion upon seclusion, and civil conspiracy claims, and held Westboro liable for $2.9 million in compensatory damages and $8 million in punitive damages. Later the District Court remitted the punitive damages award to $2.1 million. The Court of Appeals reviewed the picket signs and concluded 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.

The Supreme Court observed that 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. 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.  Whether the First Amendment prohibits holding Westboro liable for its speech turn largely on whether that speech is of public or private concern. Speech on matters of public concern is at the heart of the First Amendment’s protection.

Deciding whether speech is of public or private concern requires examination of the content, form, and context of that speech, as revealed by the whole record. The “content” of Westboro’s signs plainly related to broad issues of interest to society at large, rather than matters of purely private concern. While the Placard messages might fall short of refined social or political commentary, the issues they highlight—the political and moral conduct of the United States and its citizens, the fate of our Nation, homosexuality in the military, and scandals involving the Catholic clergy—are matters of public import. The signs certainly convey Westboro’s position on those issues, in a manner designed reach as broad a public audience as possible. The fact that Westboro spoke in connection with a funeral, also could not by itself transform the nature of Westboro’s speech. Its speech could be fairly characterized as constituting speech on a matter of public concern.

The Supreme Court thus concluded that the church members had the right to be where they were. Westboro had alerted local authorities to its funeral protest and fully complied with police guidance on where the picketing could be staged. The picketing was conducted under police supervision some 1,000 feet from the church, out of the sight of those at the church. The protest was not unruly; there was no shouting, profanity, or violence.

Given that Westboro’s speech was at a public place on a matter of public concern, that speech was entitled to “special protection” under the First Amendment. Such speech could not be restricted simply because it was upsetting or aroused contempt. What Westboro said, in the whole context of how and where it chose to say it, was entitled to “special protection” under the First Amendment, and that protection could not be overcome by a jury finding that the picketing was outrageous. Thus the jury verdict imposing tort liability on Westboro for intentional infliction of emotional distress was set aside.

As the Supreme Court found  that the First Amendment barred Snyder from recovery for intentional infliction of emotional distress or intrusion upon seclusion—the alleged unlawful activity Westboro conspired to accomplish—it likewise held that Snyder could not recover for civil conspiracy based on those torts. The judgment of the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit was thus affirmed.