US Supreme Court to Hear Military Funeral Protest Case

by

Credit: Westboro Baptist Church

The first Monday in October marks the opening of the 2010 term for the United States Supreme Court. During this week, the Supreme Court will hear oral arguments in a number of cases, including one that examines the boundaries of the First Amendment.

In Snyder v. Phelps, Albert Snyder, the father of a deceased Marine had sued Pastor Fred W. Phelps, Sr., the Westboro Baptist Church and some of its members for defamation, invasion of privacy, and intentional infliction of emotional distress. Plaintiff Snyder had lost his son, Marine Lance Corporal Matthew A. Snyder, on March 3, 2006, while his son was serving in the line of duty in Iraq.

During the funeral for Lance Corporal Snyder, Westboro Baptist Church protestors picketed the funeral. The Westboro Baptist Church typically protests at military funerals with posters bearing their message that God hates America because of its tolerance of homosexuality. Later, the church also published “The Burden of Marine Lance Cpl. Matthew Snyder” on its website, which expressed their view that the deceased was “raised for the devil” and was “taught to defy God.”

At trial, the jury returned a verdict in favor of the plaintiff in the amount of $2.9 million in compensatory damages and $8 million in punitive damages. On Motion for Remittitur, the court reduced the punitive damages portion of the judgment against all defendants to $2.1 million, for a total award of $5 million.

On appeal, the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit reversed, finding that the defendants’ signs and website publication about Matthew Snyder to be constitutionally protected. The court explained that the defendant’s signs and publication generally protested America’s tolerance of homosexuality instead of stating “actual and objectively verifiable facts about Snyder and his son.” Additionally, in that these signs contained “imaginative and hyperbolic rhetoric intended to spark debate,” the Constitution protects such forms of expression about matters of public concern even if the specific language used is utterly distateful.

The United States Supreme Court granted Snyder’s petition for a writ of certiorari. The questions presented before the court are

  1. Does Hustler Magazine, Inc. v. Falwell apply to a private person versus another private person concerning a private matter?
  2. Does the First Amendment’s freedom of speech tenet trump the First Amendment’s freedom of religion and peaceful assembly?
  3. Does an individual attending a family member’s funeral constitute a captive audience who is entitled to state protection from unwanted communication?

Additional Resources: ABA Briefs, Citizen Media Law Project, SCOTUSblog, Oyez, On the Docket, Volokh Conspiracy, and flickr.



  • I heard an interesting fact about this case last night: plaintiffs did not actually see the protesters at the funeral–they saw it on the news the next day. Apparently defendants also followed the protocol established by the state for their protest, which had the removed from sight of the actual funeral goers (time, place, and manner restrictions). Still a tough case, especially given the vulnerable audience and the particularly offensive speech.

  • Pingback: October in Review | Justia Law, Technology & Legal Marketing Blog()

  • Kristin Shamhart

    I do hope that when these people who protest show up to those funerals, the local authorities watch to make certain they are not trespassing on private property. At least fine them for that, if nothing else. We really need to rewrite the law allowing such protests and how it infringes on the rights of the families of the dead to have a peaceful assembly. It is disgusting.
    “Later, the church also published “The Burden of Marine Lance Cpl. Matthew Snyder” on its website, which expressed their view that the deceased was “raised for the devil” and was “taught to defy God.”” Isn’t this libel? If their website is public then this defames the Cpl’s character, right?