Brief Fact Summary.
A church protested near a soldier’s funeral service. The soldier’s father sued the church, who, in return, argued that their speech was protected by the First Amendment.
Synopsis of Rule of Law.
A church, who protests a soldier’s funeral while on public land, is shielded from tort liability because their speech is a matter of public concern.
Resort to epithets or personal abuse is not in any proper sense communication of information or opinion safeguarded by the Constitution, and its punishment as a criminal act would raise no question under that instrument.View Full Point of Law
Fred Phelps (co-defendant) founded the Westboro Baptist Church (co-defendant) upon the belief that God is intolerant of homosexuality. The church frequently communicated its views by picketing, especially at military funerals. The church picketed at the funeral of Marine Lance Corporal Matthew Snyder, using signs like “America is Doomed” and “Thank God for Dead Soldiers.” The church notified the authorities in advance of its intent to picket, complied with police instructions, and picketed on public land adjacent to the funeral. The funeral procession passed within 200 to 300 feet of the picket site, and Snyder’s father (plaintiff) only saw the tops of the picket signs. Snyder’s father filed suit against Phelps and the church for various tort claims, including intentional infliction of emotional distress.
Whether the First Amendment shields a church—who protests a soldier’s funeral while on public land—from tort liability?
Yes. The First Amendment shields Westboro’s speech from tort liability. The judgment of the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit is affirmed.
The deceased soldier Snyder was a private figure and Westboro Baptist Church conducted a “vicious verbal assault.”
Whether Westboro Baptist Church is liable for its speech hinges on whether the church’s speech was of public or private concern. Speech on private matters does not implicate the same constitutional concerns as speech on matters of public interest. Determining whether speech was of public or private concern entails the examination of the content, form, and context of the speech under the circumstances. Here, the content of the picket signs related to matters of public interest, like the political and moral conduct of the United States. The context of the speech within the funeral setting does not alter the conclusion that the speech was on matters of public concern. Finally, the picketing does not amount to a person attack on Snyder’s family since Westboro had been picketing long before it became aware of the funeral. Ultimately, Westboro Baptist Church’s speech is afforded First Amendment protection.