The US Supreme Court [official website; JURIST news archive] on Wednesday ruled [opinion, PDF] in Snyder v. Phelps [Cornell LII backgrounder] that First Amendment [text] protections extend to protesters at military funerals. Reverend Fred Phelps and members of the Westboro Baptist Church [WARNING: readers may find material at this church website offensive; JURIST news archive] have been traveling around the country picketing military funerals in recent years, claiming US soldiers have been killed because America tolerates homosexuals. The suit was brought [JURIST report] by the family of Marine Lance Corporal Matthew Snyder after Phelps and members of his church picketed his funeral. In the 8-1 decision, the court held that the First Amendment shields the church from tort liability because the protests fell under the protected category of "public speech." In concluding that the church's speech was public speech, the court examined the content, form and context of the speech. The majority found that the content of the speech was clearly public because it related to "broad issues of interest to society at large," including the "political and moral conduct of the United States and its citizens." The court also determined that the form and context of the protests indicate that the they fall under the public speech category because the protests took place on public property, the protesters were in compliance with local ordinances, and because there was no preexisting relationship between the church and the Snyder family that would indicate a private matter. Writing for the majority, Chief Justice John Roberts stated:
Given that Westboro's speech was at a public place on a matter of public concern, that speech is entitled to special protection under the First Amendment. Such speech cannot be restricted simply because it is upsetting or arouses contempt. If there is a bedrock principle underlying the First Amendment, it is that the government may not prohibit the expression of an idea simply because society finds the idea itself offensive or disagreeable.Justice Stephen Breyer authored a concurring opinion. Justice Samuel Alito filed a dissenting opinion stating that "the First Amendment does not entirely preclude liability for the intentional infliction of emotional distress by means of speech." Alito concluded that the church's speech went beyond public speech by specifically attacking Matthew Snyder, and was therefore not entitled to First Amendment protection.
The court's ruling affirmed a ruling [opinion, PDF] by the US Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit [official website], which held that Phelps' speech was protected by the First Amendment. The Fourth Circuit overturned a lower court decision which awarded the family [JURIST report] almost $11 million in damages. At oral arguments, counsel for the petitioner argued [JURIST report] that the court should place an emphasis on the context of the speech in light of the fact that the protests took place at a military funeral. Counsel for the church argued that, because Snyder had turned his son's funeral into a public event, the church's actions were protected because they were speaking on a matter of public concern.