U.S. Supreme Court Decision - Controversial Picketing Signs Protected by First Amendment


In the latest of a series of recent First Amendment decisions revealing what has been called the Roberts Court's "robustly libertarian" approach to protecting free speech, the United States Supreme Court yesterday held 8-1 that "hurtful" placards carried by a church group while picketing the funeral of a U.S. Marine killed in Iraq were protected speech which is immunized from liability for intentional tort claims under state law.

In Snyder v. Phelps, 562 U.S. ___ (2011), the founder and six parishioners of the Westboro Baptist Church ("Westboro"), who believe "that God hates and punishes the United States for its tolerance of homosexuality, particularly in America's military, "picketed the Catholic church funeral of Marine Lance Corporal Matthew Snyder, who was killed in action in Iraq. The picketers carried signs reading "God Hates the USA/Thank God for 9/11," "America is Doomed," "Don't Pray for the USA," "Thank God for IEDs," "Thank God for Dead Soldiers," "Pope in Hell," "Priests Rape Boys," "God Hates Fags," "You're Going to Hell," and "God Hates You," among others. It was the latest of nearly 600 funerals picketed by the church group.

Petitioner (the deceased Marine's father) sued for intentional infliction of emotional distress and intrusion of seclusion under Maryland tort law. The jury found for Snyder and awarded $2.9 million in compensatory damages and $8 million in punitive damages against Westboro. The district court remitted the punitive damages award to $2.1 million but left the compensatory damages award intact. On appeal, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit found that the district court erred in declining to award judgment for Westboro as a matter of law because the First Amendment fully protected Westboro's speech.

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