Snyder v. Phelps

CourtUnited States Supreme Court
Citation562 U.S. 443,131 S.Ct. 1207,179 L.Ed.2d 172
Docket NumberNo. 09–751.,09–751.
Parties Albert SNYDER, Petitioner, v. Fred W. PHELPS, Sr., et al.
Decision Date02 March 2011

562 U.S. 443
131 S.Ct.
179 L.Ed.2d 172

Albert SNYDER, Petitioner,
Fred W. PHELPS, Sr., et al.

No. 09–751.

Supreme Court of the United States

Argued Oct. 6, 2010.
Decided March 2, 2011.

Sean E. Summers, York, PA, for petitioner.

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.

Chief Justice ROBERTS delivered the opinion of the Court.

562 U.S. 447

A jury held members of the Westboro Baptist Church liable for millions of dollars in damages for picketing near a soldier's funeral service. The picket signs reflected the church's view that the United States is overly tolerant of sin and that God kills American soldiers as punishment. The question presented is whether the First Amendment shields the church members from tort liability for their speech in this case.

562 U.S. 448



Fred Phelps founded the Westboro Baptist Church in Topeka, Kansas, in 1955. The church's congregation believes that God hates and punishes the United States for its tolerance of homosexuality, particularly in America's military. The church frequently communicates its views by picketing, often at military funerals. In the more than 20 years that the members of Westboro Baptist have publicized their message, they have picketed nearly 600 funerals. Brief for Rutherford Institute as Amicus Curiae 7, n. 14.

Marine Lance Corporal Matthew Snyder was killed in Iraq in the line of duty. Lance Corporal Snyder's father selected the Catholic church in the Snyders' hometown of Westminster, Maryland, as the site for his son's funeral. Local newspapers provided notice of the time and location of the service.

Phelps became aware of Matthew Snyder's funeral and decided to travel to Maryland with six other Westboro Baptist parishioners (two of his daughters and four of his grandchildren) to picket. On the day of the memorial service, the Westboro congregation members picketed on public land adjacent to public streets near the Maryland State House, the United States Naval Academy, and Matthew Snyder's funeral. The Westboro picketers carried signs that were largely the same at all three locations. They stated, for instance: "God Hates the USA/Thank God for 9/11," "America is Doomed," "Don't Pray for the USA," "Thank God for IEDs," "Thank God for Dead Soldiers," "Pope in Hell," "Priests Rape Boys," "God Hates Fags," "You're Going to Hell," and "God Hates You."

The church had notified the authorities in advance of its intent to picket at the time of the funeral, and the picketers complied with police instructions in staging their demonstration. The picketing took place within a 10–by 25–foot plot of public land adjacent to a public street, behind a temporary

562 U.S. 449

fence. App. to Brief for Appellants in No. 08–1026(CA4), pp. 2282–2285 (hereinafter App.). That plot was approximately 1,000 feet from the church where the funeral was held. Several buildings separated the picket site from the church. Id ., at 3758. The Westboro picketers displayed their signs for about 30 minutes before the funeral began and sang hymns and recited Bible verses. None of the picketers entered church property or went to the cemetery. They did not yell or use profanity, and there was no violence associated with the picketing. Id ., at 2168, 2371, 2286, 2293.

The funeral procession passed within 200 to 300 feet of the picket site. Although Snyder testified that he could see the tops of the picket signs as he drove to the funeral, he did not see what was written on the signs until later that night,

131 S.Ct. 1214

while watching a news broadcast covering the event. Id., at 2084–2086.1


Snyder filed suit against Phelps, Phelps's daughters, and the Westboro Baptist Church (collectively Westboro or the

562 U.S. 450

church) in the United States District Court for the District of Maryland under that court's diversity jurisdiction. Snyder alleged five state tort law claims: defamation, publicity given to private life, intentional infliction of emotional distress, intrusion upon seclusion, and civil conspiracy. Westboro moved for summary judgment contending, in part, that the church's speech was insulated from liability by the First Amendment. See 533 F.Supp.2d 567, 570 (Md.2008).

The District Court awarded Westboro summary judgment on Snyder's claims for defamation and publicity given to private life, concluding that Snyder could not prove the necessary elements of those torts. Id., at 572–573. A trial was held on the remaining claims. At trial, Snyder described the severity of his emotional injuries. He testified that he is unable to separate the thought of his dead son from his thoughts of Westboro's picketing, and that he often becomes tearful, angry, and physically ill when he thinks about it. Id., at 588–589. Expert witnesses testified that Snyder's emotional anguish had resulted in severe depression and had exacerbated pre-existing health conditions.

A jury found for Snyder on the intentional infliction of emotional distress, intrusion upon seclusion, and civil conspiracy claims, and held Westboro liable for $2.9 million in compensatory damages and $8 million in punitive damages. Westboro filed several post-trial motions, including a motion contending that the jury verdict was grossly excessive and a motion seeking judgment as a matter of law on all claims on First Amendment grounds. The District Court remitted the punitive damages award to $2.1 million, but left the jury verdict otherwise intact. Id., at 597.

In the Court of Appeals, Westboro's primary argument was that the church was entitled to judgment as a matter of law because the First Amendment fully protected Westboro's speech. The Court of Appeals agreed. 580 F.3d 206, 221 (C.A.4 2009). The court reviewed the picket signs and concluded that Westboro's statements were entitled to First

562 U.S. 451

Amendment protection because those statements were on matters of public concern, were not provably false, and were expressed solely through hyperbolic rhetoric. Id., at 222–224.2

131 S.Ct. 1215

We granted certiorari. 559 U.S. 990, 130 S.Ct. 1737, 176 L.Ed.2d 211 (2010).


To succeed on a claim for intentional infliction of emotional distress in Maryland, a plaintiff must demonstrate that the defendant intentionally or recklessly engaged in extreme and outrageous conduct that caused the plaintiff to suffer severe emotional distress. See Harris v. Jones, 281 Md. 560, 565–566, 380 A.2d 611, 614 (1977). The Free Speech Clause of the First Amendment—"Congress shall make no law ... abridging the freedom of speech"—can serve as a defense in state tort suits, including suits for intentional infliction of emotional distress. See, e.g., Hustler Magazine, Inc. v. Falwell, 485 U.S. 46, 50–51, 108 S.Ct. 876, 99 L.Ed.2d 41 (1988).3

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 ‘matters of public concern’ ... is ‘at the heart of the First Amendment's

562 U.S. 452

protection.’ " Dun & Bradstreet, Inc. v. Greenmoss Builders, Inc., 472 U.S. 749, 758–759, 105 S.Ct. 2939, 86 L.Ed.2d 593 (1985) (opinion of Powell, J.) (quoting First Nat. Bank of Boston v. Bellotti, 435 U.S. 765, 776, 98 S.Ct. 1407, 55 L.Ed.2d 707 (1978) ). The First Amendment reflects "a profound national commitment to the principle that debate on public issues should be uninhibited, robust, and wide-open." New York Times Co. v. Sullivan, 376 U.S. 254, 270, 84 S.Ct. 710, 11 L.Ed.2d 686 (1964). That is because "speech concerning public affairs is more than self-expression; it is the essence of self-government." Garrison v. Louisiana, 379 U.S. 64, 74–75, 85 S.Ct. 209, 13 L.Ed.2d 125 (1964). Accordingly, "speech 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 (1983) (internal quotation marks omitted).

" ‘[N]ot all speech is of equal First Amendment importance,’ " however, and where matters of purely private significance are at issue, First Amendment protections are often less rigorous. Hustler, supra, at 56, 108 S.Ct. 876 (quoting Dun & Bradstreet,supra, at 758, 105 S.Ct. 2939); see Connick, supra, at 145–147, 103 S.Ct. 1684. That is because restricting speech on purely private matters does not implicate the same constitutional concerns as limiting speech on matters of public interest: "[T]here is no threat to the free and robust debate of public issues; there is no potential interference with a meaningful dialogue of ideas"; and the "threat of...

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