Case Study: Snyder v. Phelps (2011)
Fred Phelps, the pastor at the Westboro Church, along with his followers believes that God punishes the US for allowing homosexuality freedoms, especially within the military. To express their feelings the Westboro Church and its people sometimes picket military funerals in hopes that their voices will be heard. In 2006 Albert Snyder’s son who was a Lance Corporal for the United States Marine Corps was killed in the line of the duty during his time in Iraq. Matthew Snyder was killed in Anbar, Iraq when he was the gunner on a Humvee that ended up rolling after hitting something. The Westboro Church decided that they would picket Matthew Snyder’s funeral, notifying the sanction holding the funeral in advance what they planned on doing. When the Westboro Church and its followers arrived to picket this funeral they made sure to stage the picket on public land that was adjacent to a public street. Making sure that they didn’t violate any written laws they also made sure to abide by anything that was appointed to them by the police taking care of the funeral. The Church members stood outside this church during the funeral reciting different hymns and verses from the Bible. Albert Snyder wasn’t aware of what the signs said until after the whole funeral took place, claiming that he could “really only see the tops and couldn’t make out what they actually said.” Following the funeral, Snyder noticed on the news that the signs some gruesome stuff such as, "God Hates the USA/Thank God for 9/11," "Thank God for Dead Soldiers," and "Don't Pray for the USA." Snyder decided that he would then sue Fred Phelps, claiming that the picketing caused him and his family severe emotional distress. In his defense, Phelps argued that everything that took place that day was completely legal under the Free Speech Clause of the First Amendment to the Constitution. The main issue that this case faced legally, was whether Westboro's signs and comments while picketing Matthew Snyder's funeral related to matters of “public concern” and in turn, decide whether there is too much protection under the Free Speech Clause of the First Amendment. The Supreme Court made it clear that they were only going to determine this ruling based on “matters of public concern” as opposed to "matters of purely private significance." The Supreme Court affirmed that the picketing amounted to speech on issues that are public; they felt as if one of the main things that the First Amendment covers is the right to picket based upon public issues. The Court felt as if although the signs that were used "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 all matters of public import." Albert Snyder realized all of the protection under the First Amendment but he claimed in rebuttal that that picketing was intended to shape an attack on Snyder over a rather private matter. Although the Supreme Court realized that Snyder had a strong claim at the time because of the circumstances that were evident, at the same time they must also hold to the law which noted that Maryland did not have a law imposing any types of restrictions on funeral picketing at the time that this incident occurred. All in all from a legal standpoint, the Supreme Court decided that Fred Phelps and his followers were in all of their legal rights to picket that funeral. The Court expressed their acknowledgment of the picketing of a US Soldier’s funeral and the idea that many Americans would feel as if the Westboro Church was “morally defective”, but it rejected those factors as means for any type of lawsuit that could be tendered to the church. Though a jury ended up awarding the family of Lance Corporal Matthew Snyder millions of dollars, the US Supreme Court upheld the circuit...
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