Snyder v. Phelps

Facts of the Case

A father of a marine who was killed in the line of duty filed suit against protestors, who picketed for about 30 minutes before the funeral of his son began on public land approximately 1,000 feet from the church where the funeral was held. The protesters picketed military funerals to communicate its belief that God hates the United States for its tolerance of homosexuality, particularly in America’s military. A jury held the picketers liable for millions of dollars in compensatory and punitive damages. The picketers 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. On appeal, the Fourth Circuit concluded that the picketers statements were entitled to First Amendment protection.

Question

Does the First Amendment protect protesters at a funeral from liability for intentionally inflicting emotional distress on the family of the deceased?

CONCLUSION

Yes. The Supreme Court affirmed the lower court’s decision in an opinion by Chief Justice John G. Roberts, Jr. The Court held that the First Amendment shields those who stage a protest at the funeral of a military service member from liability. Justice Stephen J. Breyer filed a concurring opinion in which he wrote that while he agreed with the majority’s conclusion in the case, I do not believe that our First Amendment analysis can stop at that point. Justice Samuel Alito filed a lone dissent, in which he argued: Our profound national commitment to free and open debate is not a license for the vicious verbal assault that occurred in this case.

Case Information

  • Citation: 562 US 443 (2011)
  • Granted: Mar 8, 2010
  • Argued: Oct 6, 2010
  • Decided Mar 2, 2011