On Oct. 6, 2010, the United States Supreme Court will hear one of the most important legal controversies since Brown v. Board of Education: Snyder v. Phelps. Through this case, America’s highest court could decide the course of First Amendment jurisprudence for the 21st century.
On March 3, 2006, Lance Cpl. Matthew Snyder died in Iraq. The young soldier was buried on March 10, 2006. It was not a peaceful service, however, because members of the Westboro Baptist Church protested outside. Carrying various suggestive signs, including some that read “God Hates the USA,” Fred Phelps and his followers remonstrated as mourners entered and left the ceremony. In June 2006, Matthew’s father, Albert Snyder, filed suit against Phelps and a few of his followers, claiming intentional infliction of emotional distress, intrusion upon seclusion and civil conspiracy. Ultimately, Snyder prevailed in federal district court, was overturned in the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals, and ultimately filed to be heard before the United States Supreme Court.
The First Amendment, one of the most revered constitutional rights, has been subject to extensive interpretation. The constitutional amendment provides for protections of speech, assembly and religious practice. Since the late 1960s, the Supreme Court has decided many controversies involving protests, a form of symbolic speech, and the Snyder v. Phelps case will not be the only exception.
In this case, there are three key issues:
1. Whether a private person’s symbolic speech against another private person can be an actionable tort, such as infliction of emotional distress.
2. Whether attendants of a funeral are a “captive” audience entitled to governmental protection from unwanted speech.
3. Whether speech freedoms outweigh religious and peaceful assembly rights.
For Albert Snyder, his legal success may rest on whether the Supreme Court finds that the conduct of Westboro Church and Phelps transformed a private matter into a public matter. This status would grant him special protection.
Since the First Amendment protects citizens from harassment speech, the Court may find that Westboro’s symbolic speech could be restricted to prevent imposition on a “captive audience,” which is any listener unable to escape that speech. If Snyder and other funeral attendees are a “captive audience,” his right to bury his son without harassment is protected.
Also, the First Amendment protects peaceful and religious assembly. Snyder’s son’s funeral, as that assembly, allows restrictions on Westboro’s free speech rights.
For Phelps, his case relies on the interpretation of his and his family’s actions as matters of public concern or opinion. Per Phelps and the 4th Circuit, the content of their protest signs and Internet postings is against governmental policies and not Snyder personally. As such, these examples of speech are clearly protected under the First Amendment.
While the Snyder v. Phelps case may appear to be about two private men and their constitutional rights, it is much more. When the Supreme Court hears the matter this fall, the impact of this legal controversy will extend beyond military funerals and anti-gay protests.