Case Study of: Snyder v. Phelps, 562 U.S. 443 (2011)


The parties involved were Snyder versus Phelps.

Matthew A. Snyder was a United States Marine Lance Corporal who had been killed in the line of duty in Iraq. He was being buried near his home in Westminster, Maryland when the Westboro Baptist Church planned and carried out a protest in front of his funeral. As it states in the cases’ Syllabus, the Westboro Baptist Church had protested many military funerals for the past 20 years (now 30 years as it’s 2019) because they wanted to show that their beliefs are that God hates the United States of its tolerance of homosexuality, especially in America’s military.  They also had a dislike for the Catholic Church which Matthew was raised up in.

Matthew’s father, Albert Snyder, and two of his daughters sued Fred Phelps, the founder of the Westboro Baptist Church. Albert brought up five causes of action, but the only ones that stood were for “intrusion upon seclusion, intentional infliction of emotional distress, and civil conspiracy.” Albert said that he didn’t see specifically what was on the signs nor what was written on the Westboro Baptist Church’s website; however, he did see them later on after the funeral and concluded that it caused him a worsening of his physical condition which included aggravated diabetes and severe depression. The signs said such things as, “Thank God for dead soldiers” and “Fag troops.” The jury in the United States District Court for the District of Maryland award Albert with $10.9 million which the U.S. District Judge Richard Bennett lowered to $5 million for a lawsuit seeking compensation and damages. Then the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals reversed the ruling saying that the First Amendment protected the speech of Phelps and the Westboro Baptist Church.


The question laid upon the court: does the First Amendment protect protesters at a funeral from liability for intentionally inflicting emotional distress on famines of their deceased? 

Rule of Law:

The rule of law is that the plaintiffs cannot recover for the tort of emotional distress based on picketing at military funerals because First Amendment protections shield this type of speech even if that speech may be deemed “hate speech.”

The majority opinion is that the First Amendment protects an organized protest, even at a funeral for a military service member, from liability. Some concurring opinions agreed that the First Amendment does protect them; however, they did not agree with Phelps’ and Westboro Baptist Church’s actions. The lone dissent did not agree that this “vicious verbal assault” should be in line with the First Amendment and that we need to re-examine what a free and open debate means.

The majority of decisions were 8 votes for Phelps by Roberts, Scalia, Kennedy, Thomas, Ginsburg, Breyer, Sotomayor, and Kagan; while 1 was against Phelps by Alito.

Key Quote and Precedent:

“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,” Justice Albert Snyder wrote in the opinion.

“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.” Texas v. Johnson, 491 U. S. 397, 414 (1989).” Justice Albert Snyder wrote in the opinion using a Precedent.

My Opinion:

If I were a judge on this case, I would have concurred by ruling that this case be unconstitutional and not align with the First Amendment rights of speech by charging Westboro $5 million. Hate Speech to me is still speech as long as it’s not fighting words, direct threats, or cause immediate harm to someone or something even at a funeral. If it’s following time, place, and manner, it is legally good; however, this doesn’t mean I agree with Westboro’s decision to do this at Snyder’s funeral.


A 1st Amendment assessment from my COMS 400 Communication Law and Ethics class at Radford University. This is 4 of 10.

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