Fred Phelps and his followers at the Westboro Baptist Church believe that God punishes the United States for its tolerance of homosexuality, particularly within the military. To demonstrate their beliefs, Phelps and his followers often picket at military funerals.
Albert Snyder's son, Lance Corporal Matthew Snyder, was killed in the line of duty in Iraq in 2006. Westboro picketed Matthew Snyder's funeral displaying signs that stated, for instance, "God Hates the USA/Thank God for 9/11," "Thank God for Dead Soldiers," and "Don't Pray for the USA." The church notified local authorities in advance that they intended to picket the funeral, staged the picket on public land adjacent to a public street, and complied with all police instructions. Church members also sang hymns and recited Bible verses.
Although Albert Snyder could see the tops of the picket signs on the day of the funeral, he could not read what was written on them and it was not until he saw a news story about the funeral and the picketing that he became aware of the church's message. Snyder sued Phelps and the church claiming, among other things, that their actions caused him severe emotional distress. In defense, Phelps argued that his speech (the picketing and the signs) was protected under the Free Speech Clause of the First Amendment to the Constitution.
A jury in the United States District Court for the District of Maryland agreed with Snyder and awarded him a total of $10.9 million (which the judge lowered to $5 million). The Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals reversed the judgment, holding that Phelps' speech was protected by the First Amendment.
Whether Westboro's signs and comments while picketing Matthew Snyder's funeral related to matters of public concern and were, thus, entitled to greater protection under the Free Speech Clause of the First Amendment?
Supreme Court Holding
Yes. The Supreme Court's holding turned largely on its determination that the church was speaking on "matters of public concern" as opposed to "matters of purely private significance." The Court explained that "[s]peech deals with matters of public concern when it can 'be fairly considered as relating to any matter of political, social, or other concern to the community' or when it 'is a subject of general interest and of value and concern to the public.'" Speech on public issues is entitled to special protection under the First Amendment because it serves the "the principle that debate on public issues should be uninhibited, robust, and wide-open." To determine whether the speech dealt with matters of public concern, the Court examined the "content, form, and context" of the speech. The court noted that none of these factors determines the outcome of the case and that a court must evaluate all the circumstances of the speech, "including what was said, where it was said, and how it was said."
Even though some of the picket signs arguably targeted only the Snyder family, most of them addressed issues regarding the moral conduct of the U.S., the fate of the U.S., and homosexuality in the military. As such, the "overall thrust and dominant theme" of the speech related to broader public issues. Furthermore, the church was picketing on public land adjacent to a public street. Finally, there was no pre-existing relationship between Westboro's speech and Snyder that might suggest that the speech on public matters was intended to mask an attack on Snyder over a private matter. Therefore, the Court held that the Phelps and his followers were "speaking" on matters of public concern on public property and thus, were entitled to protection under the First Amendment.
Argued: October 6, 2010
March 2, 2011
written by Chief Justice Roberts and joined by Justices Scalia, Kennedy, Thomas, Ginsburg, Breyer, Sotomayor, and Kagan.
written by Justice Breyer.
written by Justice Alito.
The Supreme Court recently handed down a decision on the controversial First Amendment case, Snyder v. Phelps (2011), involving inflammatory protest signs at the funeral of a slain American soldier. Decisions like this one test our commitment to the protection of free speech guaranteed by the First Amendment.
1. In Snyder v. Phelps, what are the facts of the Supreme Court case? What is the constitutional question?
2. What were the arguments on the side of Snyder? What were the arguments on the side of Phelps? How did the Court rule?
3. Chief Justice John Roberts wrote the decision and quoted the following sentence from an earlier case, Erznoznik v. City of Jacksonville(1975):
“…the Constitution does not permit government to decide which types of otherwise protected speech are sufficiently offensive to require protection for the unwilling listener or viewer.”
Do you agree with this argument? Why or why not?
4. In Chaplinksy v. New Hampshire (1941), one of the cases that Justice Alito cited in his dissenting opinion, it says:
“There are certain well defined and narrowly limited classes of speech, the prevention and punishment of which have never been thought to raise any Constitutional problem. These include the lewd and obscene, the profane, the libelous, and the insulting or “fighting” words — those which, by their very utterance, inflict injury or tend to incite an immediate breach of the peace.It has been well observed that such utterances are no essential part of any exposition of ideas, and are of such slight social value as a step to truth that any benefit that may be derived from them is clearly outweighed by the social interest in order and morality.”
Do you agree with this reasoning? Why or why not?
5. One of the key points in the case was whether the statements on the picket signs were of a private or of a public nature. Which arguments do you find to be the most persuasive? Why?
6. How does the ruling in Snyder v. Phelps test our commitment to the protections guaranteed in the First Amendment?
The rulings of the Supreme Court have the power to expand, limit, or maintain the protection of free speech in the United States. In the following cases, was freedom of speech expanded, limited, or maintained?
- Abrams v. United States (1919)
- Chaplinksy v. New Hampshire (1941)
- Cohen v. California (1960)
- New York Times v. Sullivan (1964)
- Brandenburg v. Ohio (1969)
- Erznoznik v. City of Jacksonville (1975)
- Texas v. Johnson (1989)