The Supreme Court held yesterday in Snyder v. Phelps that even vile and offensive speech enjoys First Amendment protection from tort liability when it addresses matters of public import on public property in a peaceful manner.
Fred Phelps, founder of the fundamentalist Westboro Baptist Church, staged a protest at the funeral of Matthew Snyder, a Marine killed in Iraq. Though Snyder was not gay, the protesters’ message claimed that God hates America for its tolerance of homosexuality. Members of Phelps’ “congregation” carried signs bearing messages such as “God Hates You” and “You’re Going to Hell.” The protesters complied with regulations requiring them to stay a certain distance from the funeral, but the protest was obviously offensive and distressful for Snyder’s family. The family sued Phelps and won a judgment for intentional infliction of emotional distress, intrusion upon seclusion and civil conspiracy to commit both torts. On appeal, the Fourth Circuit dismissed the judgment, holding that the protest was protected First Amendment speech.
The Supreme Court upheld the Fourth Circuit’s ruling and stated that First Amendment protection largely turns on whether the speech in question is of public or private concern. The court held that while the church’s discussion of issues such as homosexuality in the military and the conduct of the United States “may fall short of refined social or political commentary, the issues they highlight…are matters of public import.” The court also stated that the church’s chosen location for conducting the protests, a public place adjacent to a public street, “occupies a special position in terms of First Amendment protection.” Further protection is warranted because its members fully complied with police guidance on where the picketing could be staged and were neither unruly nor violent. This ruling also overturns the trial court’s verdict against the church for intrusion upon seclusion because the protesters stayed far away from the funeral and did not interfere with the service itself.
If the Supreme Court had ruled for the family, it could have meant that people in far less offensive situations would be able to sue or threaten to sue people for expressing unpopular opinions. The court instead stated that, “As a nation we have chosen a different course—to protect even hurtful speech on public issues to ensure that we do not stifle public debate.”