Oral argument: Oct. 6, 2010
Appealed from: United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit (Sept. 24, 2009)
FIRST AMENDMENT, FREEDOM OF SPEECH, PRIVACY, STATE TORT REMEDIES
Respondents Fred W. Phelps, Shirley L. Phelps-Roper, and Rebekah A. Phelps-Davis (“the Phelpses”) protested at the military funeral of Petitioner Albert Snyder’s son, holding signs saying "God Hates the USA," "Thank God for 9/11," and other phrases. Snyder successfully sued the Phelpses for intentional infliction of emotional distress, invasion of privacy by intrusion upon seclusion, and conspiracy, and the jury awarded Snyder $2.9 million in compensatory damages and $8 million in punitive damages. On appeal, the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals overturned the jury verdict, holding that the Phelpses’ statements were protected under the First Amendment and thus could not be subject to a civil lawsuit. The Fourth Circuit reasoned that the statements should be protected because they are rhetorical hyperbole, as opposed to verifiable fact, and because the statements address matters of public concern. The Supreme Court’s decision in this case will implicate individuals’ free speech and privacy interests and the states’ interest in protecting their citizens through tort law.