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Snyder v. Phelps

Snyder v. Phelps
Supreme Court of the United States
Argued October 6, 2010
Decided March 2, 2011
Full case name Albert Snyder v. Fred W. Phelps, Sr.; Westboro Baptist Church, Incorporated; Rebekah A. Phelps-Davis; Shirley L. Phelps-Roper
Docket nos. 09-751
Citations 562 U.S. ___ (more)
131 S. Ct. 1207; 179 L. Ed. 2d 172; 2011 U.S. LEXIS 1903; 79 U.S.L.W. 4135; 39 Media L. Rep. 1353; 22 Fla. L. Weekly Fed. S 836
Prior history Judgment for the plaintiff, 533 F.Supp.2d 567 (D. Md., 2008); reversed, 580 F.3d 206 (4th Cir., 2009)
Argument Oral argument
Speech on a public sidewalk, about a public issue, cannot be liable for a tort of emotional distress, even if the speech is found to be "outrageous." Fourth Circuit affirmed, trial court reversed and remanded.
Court membership
Case opinions
Majority Roberts, joined by Scalia, Kennedy, Thomas, Ginsburg, Breyer, Sotomayor, Kagan
Concurrence Breyer
Dissent Alito
Laws applied
U.S. Const. amend. I

Snyder v. Phelps, 562 U.S. ___ (2011), was a United States Supreme Court case in which the Court held that speech on a public sidewalk, about a public issue, cannot be liable for a tort of emotional distress, even if the speech is found to be "outrageous".

At issue was whether the First Amendment protected protests of public protestors at a funeral against tort liability. It involved a claim of intentional infliction of emotional distress made by Albert Snyder, the father of Matthew Snyder, a Marine who died in the Iraq War. The claim was made against the Phelps family, including Fred Phelps, and against Phelps' Westboro Baptist Church (WBC). The Court ruled in favor of Phelps in an 8–1 decision, holding that their speech related to a public issue, and was disseminated on a public sidewalk.


On March 3, 2006, U.S. Marine Lance Corporal Matthew A. Snyder was killed in a non-combat-related vehicle accident in Iraq.[1][2] On March 10, Westboro Baptist Church (WBC) picketed Snyder's funeral in Westminister, Maryland, as it had done at thousands of other funerals throughout the U.S. in protest of what they considered America's increasing tolerance of homosexuality. Picketers displayed placards such as "America is doomed", "You're going to hell", "God hates you", "Fag troops", "Semper fi fags" and "Thank God for dead soldiers".[3] Members of the Patriot Guard Riders, a group of motorcyclists who separate WBC protesters from those who attend military funerals, were present in support of the Snyder family.[4] WBC published statements on its website that denounced Albert Snyder and his ex-wife for raising their son Catholic, stating they "taught Matthew to defy his creator", "raised him for the devil", and "taught him that God was a liar".[5]

Albert Snyder, Matthew Snyder's father, sued Fred Phelps, Westboro Baptist Church and two of Phelps's daughters, Rebekah Phelps-Davis and Shirley Phelps-Roper, for defamation, intrusion upon seclusion, publicity given to private life, intentional infliction of emotional distress and civil conspiracy.[5] The claim of defamation arising from comments posted about Snyder on the WBC website was dismissed, on the grounds that the contents were "essentially Phelps-Roper's religious opinion and would not realistically tend to expose the Plaintiff to public hatred or scorn".[6] The claim of publicity given to private life was similarly dismissed since no private information was made public by the Defendants: they learned that Snyder was divorced and his son was Catholic from his son's newspaper obituary. The case proceeded to trial on the remaining three counts.[6]

The facts of the case were essentially undisputed at trial. Albert Snyder testified:

Snyder described his emotional injuries, including becoming tearful, angry, and physically nauseated to the point that he would vomit. He stated that the Defendants had placed a "bug" in his head, so that he was unable to think of his son without thinking of their actions, adding, "I want so badly to remember all the good stuff and so far, I remember the good stuff, but it always turns into the bad".[7] Snyder called several expert witnesses who testified that worsening of his diabetes and severe depression had resulted from the Defendants' activities.[8]

In their defense, WBC established that they had complied with all local ordinances and had obeyed police instructions. The picket was held in a location cordoned off by the police, approximately 1000 feet from the church, from which it could be neither seen nor heard. Mr. Snyder testified that, although he glimpsed the tops of the signs from the funeral procession, he did not see their content until he watched a news program on television later that day. He also indicated that he had found the WBC's statements about his son on their webpage from a Google search.[7]

In his instructions to the jury, Judge Richard D. Bennett for the United States District Court for the District of Maryland stated that the First Amendment protection of free speech has limits, including vulgar, offensive and shocking statements, and that the jury must decide "whether the defendant's actions would be highly offensive to a reasonable person, whether they were extreme and outrageous and whether these actions were so offensive and shocking as to not be entitled to First Amendment protection".[7][9][10] WBC unsuccessfully sought a mistrial based on alleged prejudicial statements made by the judge and violations of the gag order by the plaintiff's attorney. An appeal was also sought by the WBC.[11]

On October 31, 2007, the jury found for the Plaintiff and awarded Snyder US$2.9 million in compensatory damages, later adding a decision to award $6 million in punitive damages for invasion of privacy and an additional $2 million for causing emotional distress (a total of $10.9 million). The Phelpses said that despite the verdict, the church would continue to picket military funerals.[12] On February 4, 2008, Bennett upheld the verdict but reduced the punitive damages from $8 million to $2.1 million, to take into consideration the resources of WBC. The total judgment then stood at $5 million. Court liens were ordered on church buildings and Phelps's law office in an attempt to ensure that the damages were paid.[13]

An appeal by WBC was heard on September 24, 2009. The Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals reversed the jury verdict and set aside the lower court's $5 million judgment. The Fourth Circuit ruled that the lower court had erred by instructing the jury to decide a question of law rather than fact (specifically, whether or not the speech in question was protected by the First Amendment). It also ruled that the protest signs and language on WBC's website were rhetorical hyperbole and figurative expression, rather than assertions of fact, so they were a form of protected speech.[7][14] On March 30, 2010, the Court further ordered Albert Snyder to pay the court costs for the defendants, an amount totaling $16,510. People all over the country, including political commentator Bill O'Reilly agreed to cover the costs, pending appeal. O'Reilly also pledged to support all of Snyder's future court costs against the Phelps.[15]

A writ of certiorari was filed on March 8, 2010.[16] Arguments were heard beginning on October 13, represented by three of Phelps' daughters, including Margie Phelps[17][18]


The questions presented are as follows:[16]

  1. Whether the prohibition of awarding damages to public figures to compensate for the intentional infliction of emotional distress, under the Supreme Court’s First Amendment precedents, applies to a case involving two private persons regarding a private matter;
  2. Whether the freedom of speech guaranteed by the First Amendment trumps its freedom of religion and peaceful assembly; and
  3. Whether an individual attending a family member’s funeral constitutes a "captive audience" who is entitled to state protection from unwanted communication.


Several news and civil rights organizations filed amicus briefs in support of Phelps, including the American Civil Liberties Union,[19] the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, and twenty one other media organizations, including National Public Radio, Bloomberg L.P., the Associated Press, the Newspaper Association of America, and others.[20]

Other briefs were filed in favor of Snyder, including one by Senate Majority and Minority Leaders Harry Reid and Mitch McConnell, and forty other members of the United States Senate,[21] a number of veterans groups, including the Veterans of Foreign Wars[22] and the American Legion,[23] the John Marshall Veterans Legal Support Center and Clinic,[24] and another by Kansas, forty-seven other States and the District of Columbia.[25]

Opinion of the Court

In an 8–1 decision (with the judges ruling the same way as they did in United States v. Stevens in 2010),[26] the Supreme Court ruled in favor of Phelps, upholding the Fourth Circuit's decision. Chief Justice John Roberts (as in the Stevens case) wrote the majority opinion stating "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."[27]

The court's opinion also stated that the memorial service was not disturbed, saying, "Westboro stayed well away from the memorial service, Snyder could see no more than the tops of the picketers' signs, and there is no indication that the picketing interfered with the funeral service itself."[28] The decision also declined to expand the "captive audience doctrine", saying that Snyder was not in a state where he was coerced to hear the negative speech.[29]

Justice Stephen Breyer wrote a concurring opinion, emphasizing his view that the decision related only to picketing, and did not take Westboro Baptist Church's on-line publications that attacked the Snyder family into consideration.[30]

Justice Samuel Alito, as in the Stevens case, was the lone dissenting justice in this case, beginning his dissent with, "Our profound national commitment to free and open debate is not a license for the vicious verbal assault that occurred in this case."[27] He concluded, "In order to have a society in which public issues can be openly and vigorously debated, it is not necessary to allow the brutalization of innocent victims like petitioner."[29]

In a July 2011 speech, Justice Ginsburg called Alito's dissent "heart-felt" and said that it "underscored the incomparable distress suffered by the Snyder family," noting that "although no member of the Court joined him, his opinion aligned with the views of many Court-watchers, including one of the nation’s newest -- retired Justice Stevens, [who] recently told the Federal Bar Council he "would have joined [Justice Alito's] powerful dissent".[31]

See also


External links

  • , Full text of the opinion
  • Docket No. 09-751; Albert Snyder v. Fred W. Phelps, Sr., et al on Supreme Court website
    • Oral Argument Transcripts and audio
  • SCOTUSBlog wiki on Snyder v. Phelps
  • Oral Arguments on
  • Archive of Snyder v. Phelps coverage from Albert Snyder's hometown newspaper
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