Respondents Fred W. Phelps, Shirley L. Phelps-Roper, and Rebekah A Phelps-Davis had protested at the military funeral of Petitioner Albert Snyder's son, Matthew Snyder. They held signs saying “God Hates the USA”, “God Hates Fags”, “Thank God for Dead Soldiers”, “Thank God for 9/11”, and other phrases. This case stirred a deep emotional reaction at the Supreme Court that nearly all of the states and the federal government have now passed laws to curb such tactics.
Since 1991, the congregation of Westboro Baptist Church of Topeka, led by Pastor Fred Phelps and comprised mostly of his relatives, has set pickets at public events to protest what they believe to be America's pervasive immortality. They started targeting funerals and memorial services for the military dead in 2005. They believe that the wrath of God pours out on people if they do sin, and especially if they forget God's word, and make proud sin a way of life. The “proud sin” of which they complain about is homosexuality, including same-sex marriage, fornication, adultery, murder, greed and idolatry. They decided to protest at Matthew Snyder's funeral on March 10, 2006 because they thought it was a fit occasion for their picketing since Matthew's death had drawn considerable media coverage. They were aroused by the fact that Matthew's parents were divorced, that the family was Catholic, and that Matthew was a soldier who had died to “pay for his country's sins”.
Snyder sued the Phelpses for intentional infliction of emotional distress, invasion of privacy by intrusion upon seclusion, and conspiracy. The jury found in favor Snyder, awarding him $2.9 million in compensatory damages and $8 million in punitive damages. The Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals overturned the jury award, holding that the speech of the Phelpses was rhetorical hyperbole and thus protected under the First Amendment, regardless of whether Snyder's son was a public figure. It was protected because it involved “matters of public concern” and did not contain a “provably false factual connotation.” Afterward, the Supreme Court granted certiorari on March 8, 2010 to review the Fourth Circuit's decision. The Supreme Court affirmed the judgement of the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals. Chief Justice John Roberts, who delivered the majority opinion, wrote, “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.” The judges determined that the words on Westboro's signs indeed dealt with “matters of public import” and are thus protected by the First Amendment. The court also noted that Westboro “stayed well away from the memorial service”. The protesters apparently gathered lawfully in a public area under police supervision and did not interfere with the procession or service. Snyder's lone backer, Justice Samuel Alito, wrote a passionate dissent that accuses his colleagues of being plain mean. He was in complete disagreement with the majority opinion of the court. Alito wrote, “ Respondents' outrageous conduct caused petitioner great injury, and the Court now compounds that injury by depriving petitioner of a judgment that acknowledges the wrong he suffered.” Alito said that any reasonable person could interpret Westboro's signs as personal attacks on a dead soldier rather than opinions about public issues.
The issue here is if an individual's interest in suing to recover for the disruption of a family member's funeral outweigh the disrupter's First Amendment right to freedom of speech. If I were to be in the Supreme Court, I would be on Snyder's side. It is very sad to lose a son and for a group of people to take advantage of your son's funeral is very mean. I must agree with Alito. I would interpret those signs as personal attacks. Especially because one of the signs said “Thank God For Dead Soldiers”. It is definitely directed to Matthew because he was a soldier. The Phelpses traveled many miles to protest at Matthew's funeral. They specifically went to his funeral. It wasn't just a coincidence. There should be limits to freedom of speech. A funeral should be considered at the same level of privacy one expects to receive in his or her home.
This case has not only caused a big commotion but has brought deep sadness to Snyder. He was never really able to grieve his son's death in peace. We should have the right to a peaceful funeral, It is okay to protest but there should be a limit to it as to where and when. After all, the government should of tried harder to side with Snyder since his son was serving the country we stand on.