562 U.S. 443 (2011), 09-751, Snyder v. Phelps

Docket Nº:09-751.
Citation:562 U.S. 443, 131 S.Ct. 1207, 179 L.Ed.2d 172, 79 U.S.L.W. 4135
Opinion Judge:Roberts, Chief Justice
Party Name:Albert SNYDER, Petitioner, v. Fred W. PHELPS, Sr., et al.
Attorney:Margie J. Phelps, Topeka, KS, for respondents. Craig T. Trebilcock, Shumaker Williams, York, PA, Sean E. Summers, Counsel of Record, Alex E. Snyder, Barley Snyder LLC, York, PA, for Petitioner. Margie J. Phelps, Esq., Counsel of Record, Topeka, KS, for Respondents.
Judge Panel:ROBERTS, C. J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which SCALIA, KENNEDY, THOMAS, GINSBURG, BREYER, SOTOMAYOR, and KAGAN, JJ., joined. BREYER, J., filed a concurring opinion. ALITO, J., filed a dissent
Case Date:March 02, 2011
Court:United States Supreme Court

Page 443

562 U.S. 443 (2011)

131 S.Ct. 1207, 179 L.Ed.2d 172, 79 U.S.L.W. 4135

Albert SNYDER, Petitioner,


Fred W. PHELPS, Sr., et al.

No. 09-751.

United States Supreme Court

March 2, 2011

Argued October, 2010


[179 L.Ed.2d 175] [131 S.Ct. 1210] Syllabus[*]

For the past 20 years, the congregation of the Westboro Baptist Church has picketed military funerals to communicate its belief that God hates the United States for its tolerance of homosexuality, particu­larly m America's military The church's picketing has also con­demned the Catholic Church for scandals involving its clergy Fred Phelps, who founded the church, and six Westboro Baptist parishion­ers (all relatives of Phelps) traveled to Maryland to picket the funeral of Marine Lance Corporal Matthew Snyder, who was killed m Iraq m the line of duty The picketing took place on public land approxi­mately 1, 000 feet from the church where the funeral was held, m ac­cordance with guidance from local law enforcement officers The picketers peacefully displayed their signs-stating, e.g., "Thank God for Dead Soldiers, " "Fags Doom Nations, " "America is Doomed, " "Priests Rape Boys, " and "You're Going to Hell"-for about 30 min­utes before the funeral began Matthew Snyder's father (Snyder), pe­titioner here, saw the tops of the picketers' signs when driving to the funeral, but did not learn what was written on the signs until watch­ing a news broadcast later that night

Snyder filed a diversity action against Phelps, his daughters-who participated m the picketing-and the church (collectively Westboro) alleging, as relevant here, state tort claims of intentional infliction of emotional distress, intrusion upon seclusion [179 L.Ed.2d 176] , and civil conspiracy A jury held Westboro liable for millions of dollars m compensatory and punitive damages Westboro challenged the verdict as grossly exces­sive and sought judgment as a matter of law on the ground that the First Amendment fully protected its speech The District Court re­duced the punitive damages award, but left the verdict otherwise in­tact The Fourth Circuit reversed, concluding that Westboro's statements were entitled to First Amendment protection because those statements were on matters of public concern, were not provably false, and were expressed solely through hyperbolic rhetoric.


The First Amendment shields Westboro from tort liability for its picketing in this case. Pp. 1215-1221, 179 L.Ed.2d, at 180-186.

[131 S.Ct. 1211] (a) The Free Speech Clause of the First Amendment can serve as a defense in state tort suits, including suits for intentional infliction of

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emotional distress. Hustler Magazine, Inc. v. Falwell, 485 U.S. 46, 50-51, 108 S.Ct. 876, 99 L.Ed.2d 41. Whether the First Amendment prohibits holding Westboro li­able for its speech in this case turns largely on whether that speech is of public or private concern, as determined by all the circumstances of the case. "[S]peech on public issues occupies the ' "highest rung of the hierarchy of First Amendment values" ' and is entitled to special protection." Connick v. Myers, 461 U.S. 138, 145, 103 S.Ct. 1684, 75 L.Ed.2d 708. Although the boundaries of what constitutes speech on matters of public concern are not well defined, this Court has said that speech is of public con­cern when it can "be fairly considered as relating to any matter of po­litical, social, or other concern to the community, " id., at 146, 103 S.Ct. 1684, 75 L.Ed.2d 708, or when it "is a subject of general interest and of value and concern to the public, " San Diego v. Roe, 543 U.S. 77, 83-84, 125 S.Ct. 521, 160 L.Ed.2d 410. A statement's argua­bly "inappropriate or controversial character . . . is irrelevant to the question whether it deals with a matter of public concern." Rankin v. McPherson, 483 U.S. 378, 387, 107 S.Ct. 2891, 97 L.Ed.2d 315. Pp. 1215 -1216, 179 L.Ed.2d, at 180-182.

To determine whether speech is of public or private concern, this Court must independently examine the " 'content, form, and con­text, ' " of the speech " 'as revealed by the whole record.' " Dun & Bradstreet, Inc. v. Greenmoss Builders, Inc., 472 U.S. 749, 761, 105 S.Ct. 2939, 86 L.Ed.2d 593. In considering content, form, and context, no factor is dispositive, and it is necessary to evaluate all aspects of the speech. Pp. 1216 -1217, 179 L.Ed.2d, at 181-182.

The "content" of Westboro's signs plainly relates to public, rather than private, matters. The placards highlighted issues of public import-the political and moral conduct of the United States and its citizens, the fate of the Nation, homosexuality in the military, and scandals involving the Catholic clergy-and Westboro conveyed its views on those issues in a manner designed to reach as broad a public audience as possible. Even if a few of the signs were viewed as con­taining messages related to a particular individual, that would not change the fact that the dominant theme of Westboro's demonstra­tion spoke to broader public issues. P. 1216-1217, 179 L.Ed.2d, at 182.

The "context" of the speech-its connection with Matthew Snyder's funeral-cannot by itself transform the nature of Westboro's speech. The [179 L.Ed.2d 177] signs reflected Westboro's condemnation of much in modern soci­ety, and it cannot be argued that Westboro's use of speech on public issues was in any way contrived to insulate a personal attack on Snyder from liability. Westboro had been actively engaged in speak­ing on the subjects addressed in its picketing long before it became aware of Matthew Snyder, and there can be no serious claim that the picketing did not represent Westboro's honestly held beliefs on public issues. Westboro may have chosen the picket location to increase publicity for its views, and its speech may have been particularly hurtful to Snyder. That does

Page 445

not mean that its speech should be af­forded less than full First Amendment protection under the circum­stances of this case. Pp. 1217-1218, 179 L.Ed.2d, at 182-183.

That said, " '[e]ven protected speech is not equally permissible in all places and at all times.'" Frisby v. Schultz, 487 U.S. 474, 479, 108 S.Ct. 2495, 101 L.Ed.2d 420. Westboro's choice of where and when to conduct its picketing is not beyond the Government's regulatory reach-it is "subject to reason­able time, place, or manner restrictions." Clark v. Community for [131 S.Ct. 1212] Creative Non-Violence, 468 U.S. 288, 293, 104 S.Ct. 3065, 82 L.Ed.2d 221. The facts here are quite different, however, both with respect to the activity being regulated and the means of restricting those activities, from the few limited situations where the Court has concluded that the location of tar­geted picketing can be properly regulated under provisions deemed content neutral. Frisby, supra, at 477, 108 S.Ct. 2495, 101 L.Ed.2d 420; Madsen v. Women's Health Center, Inc., 512 U.S. 753, 768, 114 S.Ct. 2516, 129 L.Ed.2d 593, distinguished. Maryland now has a law restricting funeral picketing but that law was not in effect at the time of these events, so this Court has no occasion to consider whether that law is a "reasonable time, place, or manner restrictio[n]" under the standards announced by this Court. Clark, supra, at 293, 104 S.Ct. 3065. Pp. 1217 – 1219, 82 L.Ed.2d 221, 179 L.Ed.2d, at 183-184.

The "special protection" afforded to what Westboro said, in the whole context of how and where it chose to say it, cannot be overcome by a jury finding that the picketing was "outrageous" for purposes of applying the state law tort of intentional infliction of emotional dis­tress. That would pose too great a danger that the jury would punish Westboro for its views on matters of public concern. For all these reasons, the jury verdict imposing tort liability on Westboro for inten­tional infliction of emotional distress must be set aside. Pp. 1219 -1220, 179 L.Ed.2d, at 184-185.

(b) Snyder also may not recover for the tort of intrusion upon seclu­sion. He argues that he was a member of a captive audience at his son's funeral, but the captive audience doctrine-which has been ap­plied sparingly, see Rowan v. Post Office Dept., 397 U.S. 728, 736-738, 90 S.Ct. 1484, 25 L.Ed.2d 736; Frisby, supra, at 484-485, 108 S.Ct. 2495, 101 L.Ed.2d 420 --should not be expanded to the cir­cumstances here. 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. Pp. 1219 -1220, 179 L.Ed.2d, at 185-186.

(c) Because the First Amendment bars Snyder from recovery for intentional infliction of emotional distress [179 L.Ed.2d 178] or intrusion upon seclusion-the allegedly unlawful activity Westboro conspired to accomplish-Snyder also cannot recover for civil conspiracy based on those torts. P. 1220, 179 L.Ed.2d, at 186.

(d) Westboro addressed matters of public import on public prop­erty, in a peaceful manner, in full compliance with the guidance of lo­cal officials. It did not disrupt Mathew Snyder's funeral, and its choice to picket at that time and place did not alter the nature of its speech.

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Because this Nation has chosen to protect even hurtful speech on public issues to ensure that public debate is not stifled, Westboro must be shielded from tort liability for its picketing in this case. Pp. 1220-1221, 179 L.Ed.2d, at 186.

580 F.3d 206, affirmed.

Margie J. Phelps, Topeka, KS, for respondents.

Craig T. Trebilcock, Shumaker Williams, York, PA, Sean E. Summers, Counsel of Record, Alex E. Snyder, Barley Snyder LLC, York, PA, for Petitioner.

Margie J. Phelps, Esq., Counsel of Record, Topeka, KS, for Respondents.


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