Does an individual’s interest in suing to recover for the disruption of a family member’s funeral outweigh the disrupter’s First Amendment right to freedom of speech?
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.
Questions as Framed for the Court by the Parties
1. Does the Hustler Magazine, Inc. v. Falwell standard for state tort recovery apply when a private citizen is suing another private citizen concerning a private matter?
2. Does the First Amendment’s freedom of speech tenet trump the First Amendment’s protection of 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?
Petitioner Albert Snyder’s son, Marine Lance Corporal Matthew A. Snyder, was killed in action while deployed in Iraq. Respondents Fred W. Phelps, Sr., Shirley L. Phelps-Roper, and Rebekah A. Phelps-Davis (“the Phelpses”) are members of the Westboro Baptist Church, Inc. (“WBC”), which is also a party to the action. Members of WBC uphold the view that God hates homosexuality and therefore hates America for its tolerance of homosexuality, particularly in the United States military.
At the funeral of Snyder’s son, the Phelpses and other members of the WBC arrived at the funeral site , carrying signs that with the phrases "God Hates the USA," "Thank God for 9/11," "America is doomed," "Pope in hell," "Fag troops," "You're going to hell," "God hates you," "Semper fi fags," and "Thank God for dead soldiers." Snyder did not see any of the signs or hear any of the chanting, but he became aware of the protest later that day while watching a news station's coverage of the funeral. WBC also published an epic poem on their website, entitled "The Burden of Marine Lance Cpl. Matthew Snyder." The poem claimed that Snyder taught his son "to defy his creator," and "raised him for the devil" by teaching "him that God was a liar," and allowing him to worship "false idols" (referencing Matthew's Catholic upbringing). Albert Snyder came across the poem after running a search of his son's name on Google.com.
Snyder subsequently sued the Phelpses for intentional infliction of emotional distress (“IIED”), invasion of privacy by intrusion upon seclusion, and conspiracy. The jury found in favor of Snyder, awarding him $2.9 million in compensatory damages and $8 million in punitive damages. The Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals overturned the jury award, holding that the speech in which the Phelpses engaged was rhetorical hyperbole, as opposed to verifiable fact, and thus protected under the First Amendment, regardless of whether Snyder’s son was a public figure. The Fourth Circuit further stated that the Phelpses’ speech should be protected because it involved “matters of public concern” and did not contain a “provably false factual connotation.”
The Supreme Court granted certiorari on March 8, 2010 to review the Fourth Circuit’s decision.
In this case, the Supreme Court will determine whether Petitioner Albert Snyder’s interest in recovering in tort is outweighed by the First Amendment freedom of speech rights of Respondents Fred W. Phelps et al. (“the Phelpses”). The Phelpses argue that their statements should be protected under the First Amendment because Snyder is a public figure and because their statements relate to matters of public concern. Snyder argues that the Phelpses should be subject to tort liability because Snyder is a private figure and because the Phelpses’ statements are personally directed at Snyder, as opposed to concerning public matters.
Snyder as a Public or Private Figure
An individual’s status as a public or private figure affects the amount of legal protection the individual will receive against harmful statements made by others. Individuals classified as “public figures” are generally afforded less protection than private individuals because the status of being a public figure in most cases permits and actually invites criticism, parody, and negative discussion of those figures. Thus, a public official can only recover damages for the tort of defamation by proving that a false statement was made with “actual malice,” in other words, “with knowledge that the statement was false or with reckless disregard of whether it was false or not.” Private individuals, however, are generally more vulnerable than public figures, and the Court has refused to extend the “actual malice” requirement to private individuals suing in tort for defamation. )
An individual determined to have “pervasive fame or notoriety” becomes a public figure for all issues and contexts. Contrastingly, a plaintiff who voluntarily injects himself or is drawn into a particular public controversy becomes a public figure for a “limited range of issues.” Applying this standard, the Phelpses claim that Snyder’s deliberate and intentional actions drew him into the public spotlight and caused him to become a public figure. The Phelpses argue that Petitioner’s decision to publish the specific date, time, and location of his son’s funeral “ensured the funeral itself was public,” and that his decision to contact the media immediately after the services to discuss his son, the funeral, and the WBC’s picketing of the event constituted Snyder’s voluntary injection into public controversy. Further, the Phelpses claim that Snyder enjoyed community, national and even international attention in support of what the Phelpses’ characterize as Snyder’s “efforts to silence” the WBC.
Snyder, on the other hand, denies he is a public figure, arguing that he never ran for any public or political office, maintained minimal contact with the media, and only received publicity due to the Phelpses’ actions. Thus, Snyder argues that the Fourth Circuit incorrectly required Snyder to show that the Phelpses acted with “actual malice,” a requirement applicable only to public figures.
Respondents’ Speech and its Relation to “Matters of Public Concern”
The Court has stated that “freedom of expression upon public questions is secured by the First Amendment.” The Court has since elaborated that speech acts involving “matters of public concern” are constitutionally protected, regardless of whether the individuals involved are private or public. Whether speech addresses a matter of public concern is determined on a case-by-case basis, in the context of the entire record of a case.
The Phelpses characterize the messages expressed by the picketers at the funeral as “quintessential public speech.” The Phelpses highlight the fact that the signs carried by the demonstrators displayed messages such as “God Hates Fags,” “Pope in Hell,” Thank God for IEDs,” and “Priests Rape Boys” in efforts to convince the Court that the demonstration was merely in furtherance of the opinions and viewpoints of the WBC. The Phelpses claim that the WBC members act out of a “love for God, the Bible, and their fellow citizens,” and that because these messages were about their viewpoints on controversial topics including divorce, homosexuality, and child molestation, the speech is therefore protected as “public issue” speech.
The Phelpses also argue that the “epic” poem posted on their website addresses matters of public concern. The Phelpses highlight the fact that many of the topics discussed in the poem, including homosexuality and priests molesting children, were expressed on many of the signs and similarly concerned with public issues.
Snyder, on the other hand, insists that he, members of his family, and his dead son were the targets of the WBC’s picket signs. Snyder highlights that the Fourth Circuit recognized that much of the Phelpses’ speech was “intended to spark debate about issues with which the defendants were concerned.” Further, Snyder claims that the Fourth Circuit’s incorrectly associated arguably impersonal signs like “God Hates Fags” with other signs, such as “God Hates You,” “Thank God for Dead Soldiers,” and “You’re Going to Hell,” which Snyder and members of his family interpreted as directly aimed at them.
Regarding the Phelpses’ “epic” poem, Snyder points out particular lines from the poem (including one indicating that the Snyders had raised their son to commit adultery) were not only “divorced” from the context of the funeral protest, but were provably false. Snyder argues that because the signs were targeted at private individuals, the Phelpses should not be immune from tort liability.
Invasion of Privacy
Snyder insists that he and the other attendees of the funeral were a “captive audience” to the Phelpses’ tortious conduct, and he is therefore entitled to redress, whether or not that conduct involved protected speech.
The privacy interests of “captive audiences” who are powerless to avoid offensive and intrusive speech may take priority over First Amendment protection of that speech. Application of the “captive audience” doctrine applies if (1) a sufficient privacy interest of a listener is at stake, and (2) when the speaker’s conduct interferes with the listener’s privacy in an intolerable manner.
Snyder argues that his interest in mourning his son’s death without interruption is recognizable, and that he and other funeral attendees were powerless to avoid seeing the funeral picketers’ messages. Snyder additionally asserts that the messages on the signs and on the Internet were made in an “intolerable” manner because the Phelpses intentionally interfered with the funeral and consequently caused great psychological and emotional harm to Snyder. The Phelpses, in contrast, maintain that a distance of several hundred feet separated the groups, that the protestor’s signs were not even visible, and that Mr. Petitioner himself sought out WBC’s website on his own, and therefore that the funeral attendees were not “captive” and no privacy interest was violated.
In this case, the Supreme Court must balance Petitioner Albert Snyder’s interest in suing Respondents Fred W. Phelps, Sr., Shirley L. Phelps-Roper, and Rebekah A. Phelps-Davis (“the Phelpses”) for disrupting his son’s military funeral against the Phelpses’ freedom of speech. If the Court rules in favor of Snyder, news organizations and other entities engaged in the publication of frequently extreme or offensive speech may limit their activities for fear of liability. Conversely, a decision in favor of the Phelps could interfere with the states’ power to provide actions under tort law to protect their citizens from outrageous and offensive behavior. The Court’s decision may also affect the amount of protection afforded to mourners at a funeral.
The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press and twenty-one other news media organizations argue that imposing liability on the Phelpses for merely publishing their controversial statements online after the funeral would “chill the activities of all who speak or publish on controversial issues,” including reporters, columnists, and even cartoonists. The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education adds that a decision in favor of Snyder would encourage universities to discipline their students for “outrageous” speech, thus jeopardizing free debate on campuses. The Phelpses argue that this chilling effect is worsened by the fact that the legal standard for what is “outrageous” speech is inherently subjective, and thus liability may be imposed in an unpredictable way.
Snyder maintains that a decision in favor of the Phelps encourages individuals to escape liability for harmful behavior by making outrageous statements because any conduct associated with these statements would be immune from liability under the Fourth Circuit’s decision.
Furthermore, Kansas and forty-seven other states (“States”) argue that a funeral should be afforded the same level of privacy one expects to receive in his or her home. The States support their argument by stating that no court has ever held that a funeral services is a public forum, and public cemeteries are considered private forums for First Amendment purposesThe States further argue that if funerals were to be considered a public forum, this would interfere with the states’ ability to protect their citizens through tort law from the emotional and psychological damage suffered by Snyder. Indeed, the John Marshall Law School Veterans Legal Support Center argues that the potential psychological damage from a funeral picketing may be severe because the funeral is a "singular moment in place and time in which family members may say a final farewell."
The Anti-Defamation League (“ADL”) argues that the Court should not issue a broad ruling on the First Amendment in this case because the facts do not apply to the Questions Presented. More specifically, the ADL challenges whether the case in fact concerns either a “private matter” or an intrusion on a citizen’s freedom of religion. The ADL suggests that the Court address the complicated intersection between the freedoms of assembly, religion, and speech in a case mandating the Court’s guidance, as opposed to this case.
The Supreme Court will determine whether Petitioner Albert Snyder’s interest in suing for harm caused by disruption of his son’s funeral is outweighed by the Phelpses’ freedom of speech. Snyder argues that he should recover in tort for the Phelpses’ actions because the funeral and the Phelpses’ statements were private in nature and because Snyder was a captive audience to the statements. The Phelpses, however, argue that, because Snyder is a public figure and the Phelpses’ statements relate to matters of public concern, the statements should be protected under the First Amendment.
- Wall Street Journal, Ashby Jones: Is Hateful Speech at a Military Funeral Protected by the First Amendment? (Aug. 31, 2010)
- American Civil Liberties Union: Free Speech
- Penn State Law Review, Jeffrey Shulman: When is Religious Speech Outrageous?: Snyder v. Phelps and the Limits of Religious Advocacy