Over the last two decades, the Westboro Baptist Church congregation has picketed military funerals of U.S military officers to voice their discontent with scandals involving Catholic Church clergy and the churches belief that God hates the United States of America for tolerating homosexuality. On March 10, 2006, was the funeral of U.S marine Lance Corporal Mathew A. Snyder killed tragically in line of duty in Iraq on March 2006. The burial was attended by marine officers and family members. The Westboro Baptist Church congregation travelled all the way to Maryland to picket the funeral.
The picketing was staged roughly one thousand feet away from funeral and church in accordance with local enforcement rules regarding picketing. It was a peaceful demonstration with the parishioners of the Westboro Baptist Church holding signs with messages such as: ‘Thank God for dead soldiers’, ‘America is doomed’, ‘Priests rape boys’, and “Fags doom Nations’. The protest was carried out only lasted thirty minutes before the funeral began. Although Albert Snyder, the father of the deceased saw the picketers when driving into the funeral he was oblivious of what was written on the sighs until he watched the news broadcasting later that evening.
Albert Snyder was outraged by the actions of Westboro Baptist church parishioners. He filed a diversity action against Fred Phelps and his two daughters, Rebekah Phelps-Davis, and Shirley Phelps-Ropers who participated in the picketing for claims of defamation. Additionally he also filed a suit against the church for intentional infliction of emotional distress, civil conspiracy, publicity given to private life, and intrusion upon seclusion. The defamation claim against Fred Phelps and his daughter was for comments posted on Westboro Baptist church website about Snyder. The claim against Westboro parishioners was for publicizing private life to get their message to the public.
Albert Snyder also filed claims for emotional injuries stating that the Westboro Baptist church tuned his son’s funeral into a media circus thus tarnishing his son’s memories and hurting his family. Albert Snyder also claimed that the actions of Westboro church had caused so much emotional distress; being diabetic, his health deteriorated immensely.
The two claims for deformation and publicizing private life was dismissed because the Westboro church learnt of the funeral through an obituary in the local newspaper and they followed due process during the picketing. The information on the Westboro Baptist church website did not reveal any information about U.S marine Lance corporal Mathew A. Snyder that was not already in public domain.
The Maryland district court awarded Mathew Snyder an astounding $10.9 million as compensatory damages, punitive damages for invasion of privacy and emotional distress. The amount was reached upon by a jury who made their decision after deliberating on whether the actions of Westboro Baptist Church were entitled to first amendment protection. An appeal by the Westboro Baptist church in the Maryland District Court circuit court affirmed the first decision but reduced the amount set aside for punitive damages by the lower court. The fourth court found error in the lower courts decision of allowing a jury to deliberate on an issue of law rather than fact. The fourth circuit court reversed the lower courts decision arguing that the actions of Westboro Baptist Church were in public place addressing public issue thus is protected by first amendment.
The supreme court in an over whelming 8-1 decision affirmed the fourth circuit decision. The Supreme Court ruled in favor of Phelps. The opinion written by Judge Chief Justice John Roberts and confirmed by other seven judges stated that the actions of Westboro Baptist church are entitled to first amendment protection. In addition, the judge added that the protection of the actions could not be overcome by a jury’s decision that the picketing was outrageous. The Supreme Court decision also stated that the memorial service was not disturbed because Westboro Baptist Church conducted the picketing in public property and there was no indication of any interference with the funeral proceedings. The decision also stated that Snyder was not held captive by, or coerced into hearing the negative speech.
According to Noyes, and Noyes (7), a dissenting opinion is an opinion written by one of the judges in legal case going against the decision of the majority. Justice Samuel Alito wrote the only dissenting opinion in the case of Phelps vs. Snyder. Justice Alito stated that the nation’s commitment to free speech should not be used as a platform for vicious verbal assault. In addition, he stated when the society is addressing public issues it is not necessary to undertake actions, which would brutalize innocent victims like Albert Snyder.
Although I sympathize with the petitioners anguish due to the actions of Westboro Baptist church, I would rule in favor of Phelps in accordance with what the law stipulates. The actions of Westboro Baptist Church are protected by the first amendment and the decision should be based on the law thus my decision would be in favor of Phelps. Freedom of speech should only be limited when it is infringing on other individuals right to privacy and it is results in deformation, incitement to commit a crime, obscenity or slander (Cohen-Almogor 3)
Cohen-Almogor, Raphel. Speech, media and ethics: the limits of free expression: critical studies. NewYork: Palgrave Macmillan. 2001. Print.
Noyes, Shana. & Noyes, Henry. Acing your first year of law school: the ten steps to success you won’t learn in class. USA: Hein Publishing. 2008. Print.