Snyder v. Phelps case tests First Amendment


Alyne Roemerman, reporter

“Thank God for Dead Soldiers,” or “God hates your feelings,” are not phrases usually seen or heard at funerals, but the Topeka-based Westboro Baptist Church has changed that. For the past 20 years, the WBC has been holding protests, most at military funerals. Their right to protest, however, is being questioned.

On Wednesday, Oct. 6, the United States Supreme Court heard the oral arguments for the case of Snyder v. Phelps. The father of a Marine killed in Iraq is pitted against the WBC, a congregation began by Reverend Fred Phelps in 1955. This case challenges the First Amendment and Americans’ right to free speech.

The case began in March 2006, at the funeral of Lance Corporal Matthew Snyder, who died in Iraq. The Snyder family and other funeral goers were forced to reroute the funeral procession in order to avoid seeing protestors, members of the WBC who had flown to Maryland to hold signs with messages such as “America is Doomed.”

Albert Snyder, Matthew’s father, filed a civil lawsuit based on the grounds of intentional infliction of emotional distress, or IIED, and invasion of privacy. A jury awarded Snyder $10.9 million in damages after finding the WBC liable for IIED, invasion of privacy and civil conspiracy. The verdict was reversed by the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals with a ruling that the WBC was protected by the First Amendment.

Now, the Supreme Court case will decide what limits there are at funerals for free speech and if private citizens can sue for IIED. Christina Wells, a law professor at Missouri University who specializes in the area of free speech, elaborates on what the Court’s decision will mean.

“If they rule that a private person can sue for IIED without showing anything else, then it undermines about seven decades of the Court’s cases,” Wells said.

A decision in favor of Snyder would allow for the punishment of offensive speech and would allow for lawsuits because people simply do not like the content of another’s speech. Some feel that this decision would severely infringe upon the right of free speech, such as Shirley Phelps-Roper, a daughter of Fred Phelps and an attorney in the case.

“We won’t have a First Amendment if that case can stand,” Phelps-Roper said. “You can’t be picking and choosing which message you like…that’s what they’re going to have to do in order to let this case stand.”

The WBC has been protesting for almost 20 years, and by their estimate, has held over 44, 000 protests. The first protest to garner national attention was the funeral of Matthew Shepard in 1998. Shepard had been the victim of a gay-bashing. They protest to demonstrate the views of their church.

“The views of the Westboro Baptist Church are the views that you’d find written in the Bible,” Phelps-Roper said.

Recently, these protests have been held at military funerals. According to Phelps-Roper, they protest at funerals to warn the living loved ones of those who have died that they will go to hell if they do not repent.

“We’re not trying to reform the devil,” Phelps-Roper said. “All we’re doing is warning you that there is a God and He has set a standard in this earth.”

Some feel that the case seems likely to swing in favor of the WBC.

“The Supreme Court has lots of precedents that support protesting,” senior Sam Ellis said. “Phelps will win this but only because there’s no real definition of what is private and what is public as far as funerals go.”

Not everyone is sure about the case’s outcome, including Wells.

“Cases involving highly offensive speech usually split the Court and I expect that to happen here,” Wells said. “I can’t predict [this case].”

Wells expects the Court’s decision to be made in March, but believes a split would delay the decision until June.

The WBC is not worried about the decision.

“The case came from God…if it was a work of man, a whole bunch of families would have sued us,” Phelps-Roper said. “No matter what the Court does, its going to be in our favor…it’s a win-win.”

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