On March 3°4, 2006 Lance Corporal Matthew Snyder, of Finksburg, Maryland, died from a non combat-related vehicle accident in Al Anbar province, Iraq. Matthew was 20 years old at the time of his death. (3) On the day of Matthews funeral the Westboro Baptist Church showed up to protest the funeral. The Westboro Baptist Church is an unaffiliated Baptist group that denounces Jews, Catholics, homosexuality, and politicians. They believe that global conflicts are a God’s will and that terrorist attacks, both domestic and foreign are punishment for the US tolerating homosexuaity.
It is common practice for members of the Westboro Baptist Church to picket outside of military funerals.(4)
On March 10* members of the Westboro Baptist Church gathered approximately 1000 feet away from the church where the funeral for LCpl. Matthew Snyder was being held.(2) Westboro Baptist Church officials got in contact with the local police department to make them aware that they planned to protest the funeral of Cpl. Snyder, they complied with all instructions from local police.
The protesters held up signs that said phrases such as “God Hates Fags”, “Don’t Pray for the USA”, “Thank God for 9/11″, and *Thank God for Dead Soldiers”. A few days later Westboro Baptist made allegations against Albert Snyder and his ex-wife claiming that they “taught Matthew to defy his creator”, “raised him for the devil”, and “taught him that God was a liar”. (7) Albert Snyder initially didn’t know what the protesters signs said, it was not until he saw a segment on the news about the protests that he found out what the Westboro Baptist Church was there for.
After finding out about the aggressions against his son and family Albert Snyder sued Fred Phelps, Westboro Baptist Church and two of Phelps’s daughters, Shirley Phelps-Roper and Rebekah Phelps-Davis.
They were sued for for defamation, intrusion upon seclusion, publicity given to private life, intentional infliction of emotional distress and civil conspiracy. The claims of defamation and publicity given to private life were thrown out in the United States District Court for the District of Maryland. The claim of defamation was based on comments published to the Westboro Baptist website, these claims were dismissed because the comments made against Snyder were “essentially Phelps-Roper’s religious opinion and would not realistically tend to expose the Plaintiff to public hatred or scorn”. (7) While the claim for publicity given to private life was thrown out because the information Phelps gave out about the Snyders being Catholic and being divorced was already made public in LCpl. Matthew Snyder’s obituary. The case proceeded to be tried on the remaining claims of intrusion upon seclusion, intentional infliction of emotional distress and civil conspiracy.(7) Albert Snyder testified stating: “They turned this funeral into a media circus and they wanted to hurt my family. ‘They wanted their message heard and they didn’t care who they stepped over.
My son should have been buried with dignity, not with a bunch of clowns outside”(11) Snyder claimed that the action of the members of the Westboro Baptist tainted the memory he had of his son. Snyder even brought in medical professionals to help collaborate his story claiming that the media coverage and distress caused by Westboro Baptist caused his diabetes to worsen and for Snyder to suffer from sever depression. The Westboro Baptist Church defended their actions by stating that they complied with all regulations set by local authorities. They stated that they were 1000 feet away from the Church where the funeral took place in a place sectioned off by the police. They were on public property where they claimed that they could not be seen or heard. Snyder did note that could only see the tops of the signs and did not hear about what they said until after he found out about it on a local news segment, and that he found the comments against himself following a google search.
Judge Richard D. Bennett for the United States District Court for the District of Maryland addressed the jury stating that the First Amendment has limits and it was the jury’s job to determine “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) On October 31st, 2006 the jury awarded Snyder a total of $10.9 million, $2.9 million in compensatory damages, later adding a decision to award $6 million for punitive damages for invasion of privacy and an additional $2 million for causing emotional distress. (1) On February 44, 2008 Judge Bennett reduced the punitive damages from $8 million to S2.1 million to reduce the total Snyder received to $5 million.
The Westboro Baptist Church tried to claim a mistrial on allegedly biased comment but it was thrown out. Westboro Baptist sought out an appeal. (7) On September 24, 2009 the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals reviewed the case for Snyder vs. Phelps. The Court of Appeals overturned the Judge Bennett’s ruling stating that the he made an error in asking the answer a question of law as opposed to the facts. It also ruled that the signs held where hyperbole and figurative, and that there was no way to prove those statements true, and therefore they were protected by the first amendment. (12) Snyder was also made to pay the court cost of the defendant which totaled $16,510. On March 8th, 2010 a writ of certiorari was filed, the Supreme court would finally get to review the case. October 13th arguments for the case were heard from the Phelps family. The Supreme Court sought to answer three essential questions about the case:
March 2nd, 2011 would bring an end to legal debate as the Supreme Court had reached a decision. The Supreme Court Justices ruled 8-1 in favor of Phelps. The Court argued that “speech deals with matters of public concern when it can ‘be fairly considered as relating to any matter of political, social, or other concern to the community’ or when it ‘is a subject of general interest and of value and concern to the public.” To determine whether the speech dealt with matters of the public concern the court analyzed “content, form, and context”.
Even though some of the signs could be interpreted as direct attacks against the Snyder family the overall “thrust and dominant theme” was that of issues that some might consider to be of moral concern. Since the signs that the members of Westboro Baptist held up were related to “moral concern” about the practices taking place in the US it’s considered public speech. The final point that the SCOTUS made was that since there was no previous incident between Snyder and Phelps that might suggest that this public protest might be a cover for a direct attack on the Snyder family.