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The Case of Snyder v. Phelps: Hate Speech or Free Speech?

In an age of an emboldened cancel culture machine, the line between free speech and hate speech has blurred considerably. Despite this, one case remains precedential when it comes to assessing this fine-tuned difference in a court setting: Snyder v. Phelps (2011), is a landmark US Supreme Court case that disproved the claim that public displays of protest could be liable for emotional distress.

The First Amendment of the US Constitution, adopted in 1791, protects an individual’s freedom of speech, religion, press, assembly, and freedom to petition the government, while also prohibiting the government from establishing any laws that may prohibit or favour specific religious persuasions. This amendment proved to be the determining factor of the outcome of the trial, the rights it protected being strongly over the course of it.

In Snyder v. Phelps, the two “sides” to the case were Albert Snyder and Fred Phelps. Albert Snyder was the father of Matthew Snyder, a member of the US Marine Corps who had died in an accident on the 3rd of March 2006, during the Iraq War. Conversely, Fred Phelps was the founder of the Westboro Baptist Church, which essentially operates as a fundamentalist hate group under the guise of being a Baptist church. Known for their audacious signage, the group touts inflammatory and extreme slogans and often protests, typically at private and public events, even having protested at the funerals of victims of school shootings; it was this very enthusiasm to make a stand at funerals that landed them in a legal dispute with the Snyder family. The Westboro Baptist Church believes that the deaths of US military men are a direct consequence of America’s acceptance of the LGBTQ+ community.

At the funeral for Matthew Snyder, the Westboro Baptist Church members picketed and protested, wielding signs with all sorts of homophobic slogans on them. The group had stated their intentions to protest the funeral and notified the local area in advance, complying with the instructions of authorities. Although Albert Snyder could not see what the signs said at the time of the funeral, he could see the top of the signs— it was only later on the news that he was made aware of what the signs had written on them. The protest began before the funeral and ended before it started, all taking place 1,000 feet from the funeral proceedings. After the funeral, statements regarding Matthew Snyder’s catholic upbringing were published on the Westboro group’s website which harshly criticized his parents for doing so.

Albert Snyder sued Westboro Baptist Church for claims that their picketing was intended to inflict emotional distress, intended to defame his family with false statements, and intended to “give publicity to a private life” by making a protest of a private funeral event. The claimants presented evidence that Snyder did suffer from these events, experiencing complications from diabetes and depression. Officially, Snyder filed a lawsuit on five counts:

  1. Defamation — Making statements that injure the reputation of a third party.

  2. Intrusion upon seclusion — Intruding upon the private affairs of another physically or otherwise.

  3. Civil conspiracy — Multiple parties collaborating to carry out an unlawful act that would harm a third party.

  4. Publicity given to a private life — Publicly disclosing personal facts regarding someone or something that are not widely known, and which the promotion of would upset a reasonable person.

  5. Intentional infliction of emotional distress — An individual intentionally or recklessly causing emotional distress to another.

However, upon a summary judgement requested by Westboro Baptist Church, the two charges of defamation and publicity given to a private life were dropped. Thus, the remaining three counts went forward to the District Court of Maryland. Here, Albert Snyder was initially awarded $10.0 million, then lowered to $5 million for damages caused by the Westboro Baptist Church— however, this result was then appealed.

American courts of appeals are divided into 13 circuits over the numbered geographic swaths of the states. Upon appeal requested by Phelps on grounds of the damages being excessive, the case was passed onto the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals. The initial ruling was then overturned here, but this decision was appealed by Snyder, bringing the case to the attention of the US Supreme Court.

In 2011 the US Supreme Court ruled that under the First Amendment of the US Constitution, the Westboro Baptist Church’s protest at Matthew Snyder’s funeral was protected under the First Amendment, in an 8-1 vote. According to Chief Justice Roberts, the court’s ruling was due to two contentions: firstly, the group was protesting a “matter of public concern” and not personally targeting Snyder or his family; secondly, the group had every right to be where they were, having followed all local ordinances and instructions from authorities. According to the Justice, to punish the Westboro group for protesting at Snyder’s funeral would be to stifle free speech and public discourse; no matter how unkind or despicable the church’s protests might be, they couldn’t be barred simply for their content. Justice Samuel Alito was the only one on the Supreme Court to vote otherwise, he reasons that the First Amendment is not a license for hateful attacks, especially not at a private event for mourning.

Frankly, while free speech is an unquestionable right that must be protected, it doesn’t take much tact to appreciate that the Westboro Baptist Church’s actions, while under local ordinances, were simply cruel; even though most of their signage and the main direction of their protest concerned public matters, choosing to picket at a private funeral with posters like “Thank God for Dead Soldiers” and “You are going to Hell” veers into personal territory, which is where it is no longer free speech, but hate speech targeted at a family in mourning.

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