ALBERT SNYDER, PETITIONER v. FRED W. PHELPS, SR., et al. | The Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression

Case Overview

Legal Principle at Issue

Whether protests can be held liable in court for inflicting intentional emotional distress when picketing a funeral with hyperbolic signs, some of which are directed at the deceased.

Action

The Supreme Court of the United States upheld the Fourth Circuit’s ruling that the picketing was protected expression.

Facts/Syllabus

The Westboro Baptist Church picketed on public land one thousand feet from the funeral of Marine Lance Corporal Matthew Snyder, who had been killed in the line of duty in Iraq, with signs with statements that read “Fags Doom Nations,” “You’re Going to Hell,” and “Thank God for Dead Soldiers.” Snyder’s father sued under state civil law, including for intentional infliction of emotional distress.

Importance of Case

Hurtful and hyperbolic expression that predominantly addresses a matter of public concern is protected by the 1st Amendment for purposes of state tort law claims.

The Supreme Court held that the picketing was protected by the 1st Amendment and precluded recovery for the plaintiff, relying on Hustler Magazine v. Falwell (1988), which had held that the 1st Amendment can bar recovery for intentional infliction of emotional distress; Connick v. Meyers (1983), which held that matters of public concern receive special protection; Rankin v. McPherson (1987), which held that whether a statement addresses public concern is not impacted by its controversial expression; and Rowan v. U.S. Post Office Dept. (1970), which had articulated a captive audience doctrine different from the circumstances here. Westboro’s picketing addressed public issues like homosexuality in the military and the fate of the nation and maintained a distance from the funeral service as to not make the plaintiff a captive audience. That some messaging directly addressed the memory of Matthew Snyder and that the messaging was expressed in a hurtful manner did not change the picketing’s dominant emphasis on matters of public concern.

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