Justice John G Roberts, Jr. opened the Snyder v. Phelps Opinion Announcement by reviewing the facts of the case. Justice Roberts Jr. discussed how Fred Phelps and the Westboro Baptist Church, which Phelps founded, felt that the United States was “over tolerant” of sin and that God killed soldiers as punishment. And delved into the details surrounding the churches picketing of the funeral of Marine Lance Corporal Matthew Snyder.
After Phelps became aware of Synder’s funeral, who died during combat in the Iraq War, the Phelps family decided to head to Maryland and protest down the road from the memorial service. The Westboro Church members followed suit behind their lead, and carried signs with statements like: “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 clan began their protest approximately 30 minutes before the funeral procession began, and none of the members entered the church property. No violence was reported although the church members did sing hyms and recite bible verses.
Although the Phelps family informed Maryland authorities of their plans to picket the Snyder family still filed a suit against them claiming intentional infliction of emotional distress, defamation, and publicity given to private life. The intense circumstances caused the case to go all the way to the US Supreme Court.
The Snyder family claimed in court they were unable to separate the thought of their dead son from the thoughts of the picketing which eventually caused the father of the deceased severe depression and lead to intensify pre-existing health conditions. Eventually the Snyder family was awarded a 2.1 million judgment, which the Westbrook Church later appealed. The church later claimed in the court of appeals that their “peaceful” protest was protected under the First Amendment. The court of appeals eventually agreed with the Westboro Church, leading the case to the Supreme Court.
In the Opinion Announcement, Justice Roberts Jr. quoted a ruling from an earlier case involving the First Amendment.
“There is no threat to the free and robust debate of political issues and there is no potential interference with the meaningful dialogue of these ideas.”
The Supreme Justices had to decide whether in fact Snyder’s funeral was a private or public concern, which they inevitably decided was public.
“Well the church’s 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 faith of our nation, homosexuality in the military and scandals involving the catholic clergy are matters of import. Even if a few of Westboros signs were viewed as containing messages related to Matthew Snyder or the Snyder’s specifically, that wouldn’t not change the fact that the overall thrust and dominant theme of the church’s demonstration spoke to broader public issue,” Justice Robert Jr. ruled.
The context of the Westboro picketing could not be directly linked to Matthew Snyder, but rather the larger political themes that could be associated with his public standing. The picketers displayed their signs on public land, next to a public street. Mr. Snyder contested that the First Amendment rights of the church should not stand in this case “not only because of the words” but additionally because of their intent to exploit a soldiers funereal and use it as a “platform to bring their message to a broader audience.”
However the courts had previously concurred in the case of Frisby v. Schultz “we have repeatedly referred to public streets as the archetype of a traditional public forum.” Additionally the courts noted that Mr. Snyder’s emotional distress caused by the picketing could not be totally separated from the sorrow he had already felt in conjunction with the death of his son.
Even though many found the picketing to be distasteful and claimed it disturbed the peace the courts could not rule in favor of the Snyder family.
“[But] that does not change the fact that the church was engaged in peaceful picketing addressing matters of public concern on a public street,” Justice Roberts Jr. said in reference to the social disturbance caused by the picketing.
The case of Snyder v. Phelps demonstrates the power held in the First Amendment. Although the majority of Americans would likely find the views spewed by the Wesboro Baptist Church appalling, and their decision to protest at a fallen soldier’s funeral even more disturbing, the circumstances clearly show that the church had operated well within their First Amendment rights. The ruling can be viewed a loss for those who live by a “politically correct” way of thinking and a win for those who like to push the envelope when it comes to First Amendment rights. Either way the case perfectly represents the thin line between highs and lows associated with the United States justice system.