SUPREME COURT OF THE UNITED STATES
ALBERT SNYDER, PETITIONER v.
on writ of certiorari to the united states court of appeals for the fourth circuit
[March 2, 2011]
Chief Justice Roberts delivered the opinion of the Court.
A jury held members of the Westboro Baptist Church liable for millions of dollars in damages for picketing near a soldier’s funeral service. The picket signs reflected the church’s view that the United States is overly tolerant of sin and that God kills American soldiers as punishment. The question presented is whether the First Amendment shields the church members from tort liability for their speech in this case.
Fred Phelps founded the Westboro Baptist Church in Topeka, Kansas, in 1955. The church’s congregation believes that God hates and punishes the United States for its tolerance of homosexuality, particularly in America’s military. The church frequently communicates its views by picketing, often at military funerals. In the more than 20 years that the members of Westboro Baptist have publicized their message, they have picketed nearly 600 funerals.
Marine Lance Corporal Matthew Snyder was killed in Iraq in the line of duty. Lance Corporal Snyder’s father selected the Catholic church in the Snyders’ hometown of Westminster, Maryland, as the site for his son’s funeral. Local newspapers provided notice of the time and location of the service.
Phelps became aware of Matthew Snyder’s funeral and decided to travel to Maryland with six other Westboro Baptist parishioners (two of his daughters and four of his grandchildren) to picket. On the day of the memorial service, the Westboro congregation members picketed on public land adjacent to public streets near the Maryland State House, the United States Naval Academy, and Matthew Snyder’s funeral. The Westboro picketers carried signs that were largely the same at all three locations. They stated, for instance: “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.”
The church had notified the authorities in advance of its intent to picket at the time of the funeral, and the picketers complied with police instructions in staging their demonstration. The picketing took place within a 10- by 25-foot plot of public land adjacent to a public street, behind a temporary fence. That plot was approximately 1,000 feet from the church where the funeral was held. Several buildings separated the picket site from the church. The Westboro picketers displayed their signs for about 30 minutes before the funeral began and sang hymns and recited Bible verses. None of the picketers entered church property or went to the cemetery. They did not yell or use profanity, and there was no violence associated with the picketing.
procession passed within 200 to
300 feet of the picket site. Although Snyder testified that he could
see the tops of the picket signs as he drove to the funeral, he did not
see what was written on the signs until later that night, while
watching a news broadcast covering the event.
Snyder filed suit against Phelps, Phelps’s daughters, and the Westboro Baptist Church (collectively Westboro or the church) in the United States District Court for the District of Maryland under that court’s diversity jurisdiction. Snyder alleged five state tort law claims: defamation, publicity given to private life, intentional infliction of emotional distress, intrusion upon seclusion, and civil conspiracy. Westboro moved for summary judgment contending, in part, that the church’s speech was insulated from liability by the First Amendment .
The District Court awarded Westboro summary judgment on Snyder’s claims for defamation and publicity given to private life, concluding that Snyder could not prove the necessary elements of those torts. A trial was held on the remaining claims. At trial, Snyder described the severity of his emotional injuries. He testified that he is unable to separate the thought of his dead son from his thoughts of Westboro’s picketing, and that he often becomes tearful, angry, and physically ill when he thinks about it. Expert witnesses testified that Snyder’s emotional anguish had resulted in severe depression and had exacerbated pre-existing health conditions.
A jury found for Snyder on the intentional infliction of emotional distress, intrusion upon seclusion, and civil conspiracy claims, and held Westboro liable for $2.9 million in compensatory damages and $8 million in punitive damages. Westboro filed several post-trial motions, including a motion contending that the jury verdict was grossly excessive and a motion seeking judgment as a matter of law on all claims on First Amendment grounds. The District Court remitted the punitive damages award to $2.1 million, but left the jury verdict otherwise intact.
In the Court of Appeals, Westboro’s primary argument was that the church was entitled to judgment as a matter of law because the First Amendment fully protected Westboro’s speech. The Court of Appeals agreed. The court reviewed the picket signs and concluded that Westboro’s statements were entitled to First Amendment protection because those statements were on matters of public concern, were not provably false, and were expressed solely through hyperbolic rhetoric.
We granted certiorari.
To succeed on a claim for intentional infliction of emotional distress in Maryland, a plaintiff must demonstrate that the defendant intentionally or recklessly engaged in extreme and outrageous conduct that caused the plaintiff to suffer severe emotional distress. The Free Speech Clause of the First Amendment —“Congress shall make no law … abridging the freedom of speech”—can serve as a defense in state tort suits, including suits for intentional infliction of emotional distress. See, e.g., Hustler Magazine, Inc. v. Falwell , 485 U. S. 46 (1988) .
Whether the First Amendment prohibits holding Westboro liable for its speech in this case turns largely on whether that speech is of public or private concern, as determined by all the circumstances of the case. “[S]peech on ‘matters of public concern’ … is ‘at the heart of the First Amendment ’s protection.’ ” That is because “speech concerning public affairs is more than self-expression; it is the essence of self-government.” Accordingly, “speech on public issues occupies the highest rung of the hierarchy of First Amendment values, and is entitled to special protection.”
....We noted a short time ago, in considering whether public employee speech addressed a matter of public concern, that “the boundaries of the public concern test are not well defined.” Although that remains true today, we have articulated some guiding principles, principles that accord broad protection to speech to ensure that courts themselves do not become inadvertent censors.
Speech deals with
matters of public concern when it can “be fairly considered as relating
to any matter of political, social, or other concern to the community,”
or when it “is a subject of legitimate news interest; that is,
a subject of general interest and of value and concern to the
public.” The arguably “inappropriate or controversial
character of a statement
is irrelevant to the question whether it deals with a matter of public
Deciding whether speech is of public or private concern requires us to examine the content, form, and context of that speech, as revealed by the whole record....The “content” of Westboro’s signs plainly relates to broad issues of interest to society at large, rather than matters of “purely private concern.” The placards read “God Hates the USA/Thank God for 9/11,” “America is Doomed,” “Don’t Pray for the USA,” “Thank God for IEDs,” “Fag Troops,” “Semper Fi Fags,” “God Hates Fags,” “Maryland Taliban,” “Fags Doom Nations,” “Not Blessed Just Cursed,” “Thank God for Dead Soldiers,” “Pope in Hell,” “Priests Rape Boys,” “You’re Going to Hell,” and “God Hates You.” While these messages may fall short of refined social or political commentary, the issues they highlight—the political and moral conduct of the United States and its citizens, the fate of our Nation, homosexuality in the military, and scandals involving the Catholic clergy—are matters of public import. The signs certainly convey Westboro’s position on those issues, in a manner designed to reach as broad a public audience as possible. And even if a few of the signs—such as “You’re Going to Hell” and “God Hates You”—were viewed as containing messages related to Matthew Snyder or the Snyders specifically, that would not change the fact that the overall thrust and dominant theme of Westboro’s demonstration spoke to broader public issues.
Apart from the
content of Westboro’s signs,
Snyder contends that the “context” of the speech—its connection with
his son’s funeral—makes the speech a matter of private rather than
public concern. The fact that Westboro spoke in connection with a
funeral, however, cannot by itself transform the nature of Westboro’s
speech. Westboro’s signs, displayed on public land next to a public
street, reflect the fact that the church finds much to condemn in
modern society. Its speech is “fairly characterized as constituting
speech on a matter of public concern,” and the funeral setting does not
alter that conclusion....
Snyder goes on to argue that Westboro’s speech should be afforded less than full First Amendment protection “not only because of the words” but also because the church members exploited the funeral “as a platform to bring their message to a broader audience.” There is no doubt that Westboro chose to stage its picketing at the Naval Academy, the Maryland State House, and Matthew Snyder’s funeral to increase publicity for its views and because of the relation between those sites and its views—in the case of the military funeral, because Westboro believes that God is killing American soldiers as punishment for the Nation’s sinful policies.
to convey its views in
conjunction with Matthew Snyder’s funeral made the expression of those
views particularly hurtful to many, especially to Matthew’s father. The
record makes clear that the applicable legal term—“emotional
distress”—fails to capture fully the anguish Westboro’s choice added to
Mr. Snyder’s already incalculable grief. But Westboro conducted its
picketing peacefully on matters of public concern at a public place
adjacent to a public street. Such space occupies a “special position in
terms of First Amendment protection.” “[W]e
have repeatedly referred to public streets as the archetype of
a traditional public forum,” noting that “ ‘[t]ime out of mind’
streets and sidewalks have been used for public assembly and debate.”
....Simply put, the church members had the right to be where they were. Westboro alerted local authorities to its funeral protest and fully complied with police guidance on where the picketing could be staged.....The record confirms that any distress occasioned by Westboro’s picketing turned on the content and viewpoint of the message conveyed, rather than any interference with the funeral itself. A group of parishioners standing at the very spot where Westboro stood, holding signs that said “God Bless America” and “God Loves You,” would not have been subjected to liability. It was what Westboro said that exposed it to tort damages.
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.”
The jury here was instructed that it could hold Westboro liable for intentional infliction of emotional distress based on a finding that Westboro’s picketing was “outrageous.” “Outrageousness,” however, is a highly malleable standard with “an inherent subjectiveness about it which would allow a jury to impose liability on the basis of the jurors’ tastes or views, or perhaps on the basis of their dislike of a particular expression.” What Westboro said, in the whole context of how and where it chose to say it, is entitled to “special protection” under the First Amendment , and that protection cannot be overcome by a jury finding that the picketing was outrageous.
For all these reasons, the jury verdict imposing tort liability on Westboro for intentional infliction of emotional distress must be set aside....
Our holding today is narrow. We are required in First Amendment cases to carefully review the record, and the reach of our opinion here is limited by the particular facts before us....
Westboro believes that America is morally flawed; many Americans might feel the same about Westboro. Westboro’s funeral picketing is certainly hurtful and its contribution to public discourse may be negligible. But Westboro addressed matters of public import on public property, in a peaceful manner, in full compliance with the guidance of local officials. The speech was indeed planned to coincide with Matthew Snyder’s funeral, but did not itself disrupt that funeral, and Westboro’s choice to conduct its picketing at that time and place did not alter the nature of its speech.
Speech is powerful. It can stir people to action, move them to tears of both joy and sorrow, and—as it did here—inflict great pain. On the facts before us, we cannot react to that pain by punishing the speaker. As a Nation we have chosen a different course—to protect even hurtful speech on public issues to ensure that we do not stifle public debate. That choice requires that we shield Westboro from tort liability for its picketing in this case.
The judgment of the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit is affirmed.
It is so ordered.
Justice Alito , dissenting.
Our profound national commitment to free and open debate is not a license for the vicious verbal assault that occurred in this case.
Snyder is not a public
figure. He is simply a parent whose son, Marine Lance Corporal Matthew
Snyder, was killed in Iraq. Mr. Snyder wanted what is surely the right
of any parent who experiences such an incalculable loss: to bury his
son in peace. But respondents, members of the Westboro Baptist Church,
deprived him of that elementary right. They first issued a press
release and thus turned Matthew’s funeral into a tumultuous media
event. They then appeared at the church, approached as closely as they
could without trespassing, and launched a malevolent verbal attack on
Matthew and his family at a time of acute emotional vulnerability. As a
result, Albert Snyder suffered severe and lasting emotional injury. The
Court now holds that the First Amendment
protected respondents’ right to brutalize Mr. Snyder. I cannot agree....
In this case, respondents brutally attacked Matthew Snyder, and this attack, which was almost certain to inflict injury, was central to respondents’ well-practiced strategy for attracting public attention.
On the morning of Matthew Snyder’s funeral, respondents could have chosen to stage their protest at countless locations. They could have picketed the United States Capitol, the White House, the Supreme Court, the Pentagon, or any of the more than 5,600 military recruiting stations in this country. They could have returned to the Maryland State House or the United States Naval Academy, where they had been the day before. They could have selected any public road where pedestrians are allowed. They could have staged their protest in a public park. They could have chosen any Catholic church where no funeral was taking place. But of course, a small group picketing at any of these locations would have probably gone unnoticed.
The Westboro Baptist Church, however, has devised a strategy that remedies this problem. As the Court notes, church members have protested at nearly 600 military funerals. They have also picketed the funerals of police officers, firefighters, and the victims of natural disasters, accidents, and shocking crimes. And in advance of these protests, they issue press releases to ensure that their protests will attract public attention.
This strategy works
because it is expected
that respondents’ verbal assaults will wound the family and friends of
the deceased and because the media is irresistibly drawn to the sight
of persons who are visibly in grief. The more outrageous the funeral
protest, the more publicity the Westboro Baptist Church is able to
obtain. Thus, when the church recently announced its intention to
picket the funeral of a 9-year-old girl killed in the shooting spree in
Tucson—proclaiming that she was “better off dead”
—their announcement was national news, and the church was able to obtain
free air time on the radio in exchange for canceling its protest.
Similarly, in 2006, the church got air time on a talk radio show in
exchange for canceling its threatened protest at the funeral of five
Amish girls killed by a crazed gunman.
After the funeral, the Westboro picketers reaffirmed the meaning of their protest. They posted an online account entitled “The Burden of Marine Lance Cpl. Matthew A. Snyder. The Visit of Westboro Baptist Church to Help the Inhabitants of Maryland Connect the Dots!” Belying any suggestion that they had simply made general comments about homosexuality, the Catholic Church, and the United States military, the “epic” addressed the Snyder family directly: “God blessed you, Mr. and Mrs. Snyder, with a resource and his name was Matthew. He was an arrow in your quiver! In thanks to God for the comfort the child could bring you, you had a DUTY to prepare that child to serve the LORD his GOD—PERIOD! You did JUST THE OPPOSITE—you raised him for the devil....Albert and Julie RIPPED that body apart and taught Matthew to defy his Creator, to divorce, and to commit adultery. They taught him how to support the largest pedophile machine in the history of the entire world, the Roman Catholic monstrosity. Every dime they gave the Roman Catholic monster they condemned their own souls. They also, in supporting satanic Catholicism, taught Matthew to be an idolater. Then after all that they sent him to fight for the United States of Sodom, a filthy country that is in lock step with his evil, wicked, and sinful manner of life, putting him in the cross hairs of a God that is so mad He has smoke coming from his nostrils and fire from his mouth! How dumb was that?”
In light of this evidence, it is abundantly clear that respondents, going far beyond commentary on matters of public concern, specifically attacked Matthew Snyder because (1) he was a Catholic and (2) he was a member of the United States military. Both Matthew and petitioner were private figures, and this attack was not speech on a matter of public concern. While commentary on the Catholic Church or the United States military constitutes speech on matters of public concern, speech regarding Matthew Snyder’s purely private conduct does not....
The Court concludes that respondents’ speech was protected by the First Amendment for essentially three reasons, but none is sound....
Exploitation of a funeral for the purpose of attracting public attention “intrud[es] upon their … grief,” and may permanently stain their memories of the final moments before a loved one is laid to rest. Allowing family members to have a few hours of peace without harassment does not undermine public debate. I would therefore hold that, in this setting, the First Amendment permits a private figure to recover for the intentional infliction of emotional distress caused by speech on a matter of private concern....
In order to have a society in which public issues can be openly and vigorously debated, it is not necessary to allow the brutalization of innocent victims like petitioner. I therefore respectfully dissent.