Focusing public attention on emerging privacy and civil liberties issues

Snyder v. Phelps

Concerning the Right to Free Speech and the Right to Privacy

Questions Presented

On appeal from the Fourth Circuit:

(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?

Background

Marine Lance Corporal Matthew A. Snyder was killed in Iraq on March 3, 2006. His father, Albert Snyder, filed a lawsuit in June 2006 against Westboro Baptist Church and several of its members ("Defendants") after members of the church went to Maryland to picket his son's funeral in a protest against homosexuality. The Defendants were not present at the funeral, but carried signs with messages such as "God Hates the USA," "America is doomed," "Fag troops," "You're going to hell," "God hates you," "Semper fi fags," and "Thank God for dead soldiers." One of the church's religious beliefs is that God hates homosexuality and hates and punishes America for tolerating homosexuality, particularly in the United States military.

The Defendants created a website, www.godhatesfags.com. Following Snyder's funeral, the Defendants published an "epic" on the church's website entitled "The Burden of Marine Lance Cpl. Matthew A. Snyder." It stated that Albert Snyder and his ex-wife "taught Matthew to defy his creator," "raised him for the devil," and "taught him that God was a liar."

Snyder raised five claims: defamation, intrusion upon seclusion, publicity given to private life, intentional infliction of emotional distress, and civil conspiracy. The Defendants moved for summary judgment on all of the claims, asserting First Amendment rights. The district court granted summary judgment on the defamation and publicity given to private life claims. As to the defamation claim, the district court found that the Defendant's speech fell into the realm of religious opinion, and "would not realistically tend to expose Snyder to public hatred or scorn." Snyder, 533 F. Supp. 2d at 572-73. As to the publicity given to private life claim, the district court found that the Defendants had not made public any private information, instead restating information from a newspaper obituary.

At trial on the remaining claims, a jury found for Snyder, awarding him $2.9 million in compensatory damages and $8 million in punitive damages. In the district court's post-trial opinion, the judge was satisfied with how the balancing test was presented to the jury (First Amendment rights versus rights of other private citizens to be free from verbal assaults and comments while at a funeral), and rejected the argument that the Defendants were entitled to First Amendment protection as a matter of law. The district court upheld the compensatory damages award but remitted the punitive damages award to $2.1 million. The Defendant appealed and the Fourth Circuit reversed.

The Court of Appeals determined that the district court erred in allowing the jury to decide the nature of the speech involved and whether the Free Speech Clause protected such speech. Thus, it was inappropriate to ask the jury to decide if the Defendants' speech was "directed specifically at the Snyder family," and, if so, whether it was so "offensive and shocking as to not be entitled to First Amendment protection." Snyder, 580 F.3d 206, 221. The Fourth Circuit also reassessed the content of the Defendants' signs and "epic" to determine if such speech was protected by the First Amendment because the district court applied the wrong legal standard in its post-trial opinion. The appellate court stated that the proper standard to apply assesses whether the statements could reasonably be interpreted as asserting "actual facts" about an individual, or whether they instead merely contain rhetorical hyperbole.

As to the protest signs, the Fourth Circuit determined that this speech did not assert actual and objectively verifiable facts about Snyder or his son, and contained rhetorical hyperbole and figurative expression protected by the First Amendment. Concerning the "epic," the appellate court also found this speech to be protected by the First Amendment. Although the "epic" is entitled "The Burden of Marine Lance Cpl. Matthew A. Snyder," the appellate court determined that the message was a continuation of the Defendants' beliefs against homosexuality and did not appear to be the source of any actual facts.

On December 23, 2009, Albert Snyder filed a petition for a writ of certiorari, which was granted on March 8, 2010. The petition asks the Supreme Court to revisit its decision in Hustler Magazine v. Falwell, and answer whether its decision in that case applies in an intentional infliction of emotional distress claim between private individuals. The petition also asks the Supreme Court to address the First Amendment's reach in protecting speech during a private affair like a funeral. Lastly, the Supreme Court is asked to further define what constitutes a "captive audience" and whether this includes an individual attending a family member's funeral.

Legal Documents

Supreme Court

Certiorari Stage Documents (PDFs)

Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals (PDF)

News Reports

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