Snyder vs. Phelps: Tolerating intolerance

By Evan Heichelbech and Cameron Coyle, F/G Scholars

Westboro Baptist protestors (Photo by Travis Wise from Creative Commons)

After Matthew Snyder, a U.S. Marine, was killed in the line of duty in 2006, Fred Phelps and other members of the Westboro Baptist Church picketed the fallen marine’s funeral. Phelps and his followers held signs up across the street with messages like “Thank God for 9/11” and “Pray for more dead soldiers” written on them. The Westboro Baptist Church is known primarily as a hate group who protests and denounces homosexuality and other religions among many other things. Albert Snyder, Matthew’s homosexual father, could only see the tops of the signs from across the street and didn’t fully understand what had happened until he saw a news story about the picketing sometime after the funeral.

Snyder realized what had happened, and sued Phelps and the church for intentional infliction of emotional distress, intrusion upon seclusion and civil conspiracy. Phelps argued that the picketing and signs were forms of speech protected under the First Amendment.

The case started in the U.S. District Court in Maryland where a jury decided that Snyder was owed $10.9 million from Phelps before the judge lowered it to $5 million. Next, the case proceeded to the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals where the judgment was reversed based upon the fact that Phelps was protected by the First Amendment.

Once the case reached the Supreme Court, the justices considered a variety of factors to distinguish whether or not this hate speech behavior by Phelps and the Westboro Baptists should be protected by the First Amendment. Ultimately, the Supreme Court upheld the previous decision by an 8-1 margin based upon the following points of fact:

  • Westboro Baptists were protesting “matters of public concern” that were “a subject of general interest” and did not specifically single one person out. The topic of gay rights was a hot-button issue in 2011, four years before gay marriage was legalized, which qualified this kind of protest as one of public concern and general interest. The Supreme Court also maintained that a principle of debate on public issues should not be prohibited
  • Protesters were on public property across from the funeral and not inside the funeral which could’ve been considered private.
  • Most picket signs addressed homosexuality in general, not Snyder specifically.
    Snyder did not know exactly what they were protesting until he saw it on the news, meaning he did not suffer emotional distress on the actual day of the protest.

The majority opinion was given by Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr who wrote that the Westboro Baptists were entitled to protection by the First Amendment just like any other group publicly protesting would be.

“What Westboro said, in the whole context of how and where it chose to say it, is entitled to ‘special protection’ under the First Amendment and that protection cannot be overcome by a jury finding that the picketing was outrageous,” Roberts wrote.

The concurring opinion in favor of Phelps was given by Justice Stephen Breyer who said that the Court’s opinion “does not hold or imply that the State is always powerless to provide private individuals with necessary protection.”

The dissenting opinion, given by Justice Samuel Alito, claimed that the free speech protected by the First Amendment was “not a license for the vicious verbal assault that occurred in this case.” Alito also argued that “it is not necessary to allow the brutalization of innocent victims,” in order to hold free public debate and discussion.

Snyder vs. Phelps was a landmark case in the way it reinforced the precedent of protection of the free speech clause of the First Amendment. The majority vote of 8-1 showed Americans that there is indeed a high tolerance for hate speech, which falls under the category of protected speech by the First Amendment. Without protection for hate speech, which is categorized as free speech, other types of free speech guaranteed by the First Amendment would be in danger in future cases. As hard as it may have been for the Supreme Court to stomach and rule in favor of Phelps, a very dangerous precedent would have been set had the Court decided to punish Phelps and his followers for their display of open protest and speech. The case also pushed for a higher burden of proof for infliction of emotional distress.

Works Cited

Gregory, Sean. “Why the Supreme Court Ruled for Westboro.” Time, Time Inc., 3 Mar. 2011.

Oyez .”Snyder v. Phelps.” Oyez, 20 Sep. 2018.

United States Courts. “Facts and Case Summary – Snyder v. Phelps.” United States Courts, 2011.

Westboro Baptist Church. “Westboro Baptist Church Picket Schedule.” Westboro Baptist
Church God H8S Videos, 2018.

White, Meghan. “The Implications of Snyder v Phelps.” The University of Maine, May 2012.

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