Snyder v. Phelps is one of the most controversial free speech cases that this country has seen in a long time. The case is inflammatory for many reasons. Primarily, it involves the right of family members to mourn privately for their son who was killed at war in Iraq. Secondly, it involves the already controversial topic of gay rights. Third, it involves one of the most powerful amendments contained in the Bill of Rights: the right to free speech.
The facts of Snyder v. Phelps are quite clear and were not contested at the trial level. The plaintiff in this civil matter, Albert Snyder, was attending the funeral for his son, Marine Lance Cpl. Matthew A. Snyder. The defendants in this matter, who include several individuals as well as the Westboro Baptist Church, were picketing in front of the church holding the funeral service for the plaintiff’s son. They held signs containing inflammatory statements, such as “God hates America” and “Thank God for dead soldiers.” The message that the defendants claim to have been promoting through their picketing and signs was that God hates America because of its tolerance of homosexuality.
The plaintiff sued the defendants for compensatory and punitive damages based on several theories of law, including intentional infliction of mental and emotional distress, invasion of privacy, and defamation. The trial court heard an abundance of evidence regarding the distress the plaintiff alleged was caused to him by the defendants’ actions. The trial court granted summary judgment to the defamation cause of action, a procedure that allows the court to rule on a certain matter based solely on legal principals and established legal precedent.
The jury was quite sympathetic towards the plaintiff — after hearing the evidence, it awarded the plaintiff $10.9 million for both compensatory and punitive damages combined. This large jury award was largely contested and was reduced by the District Court in Maryland. The District Court found that the punitive damages, amounting to $8 million of the total $10.9 million award, were excessive, and reduced them to $2.1 million.
In their appeal, the defendants raise a number of arguments, including that the jury was impermissibly biased, that the trial court made evidentiary errors, and that the District Court lacked the requisite jurisdiction to hear the case. The 4th Circuit easily dismissed all of these claims. The main issue — whether the defendants’ speech was protected by the First Amendment — was the claim that the 4th Circuit most thoroughly entertained. After analyzing several errors made by the District Court, the 4th Circuit concluded that the defendants’ speech was constitutionally protected, and therefore that the judgment for the plaintiff must be reversed. Although acknowledging the speech as “distasteful and repugnant,” the 4th Circuit nevertheless reversed the judgment of the District Court. The Supreme Court of the United States has granted certiorari for this case, and it will be heard for oral argument next term.