Snyder v. Phelps: Right to Free Speech vs. Right to Privacy

“It is the obligation of Westboro Baptist Church to put the cup of God’s fury to America’s lips, and cause America to drink it. And you will drink it!”

– Rev. Fred Phelps, Westboro Baptist Church

The Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS) started hearing arguments in a highly controversial case on Wednesday. Snyder v. Phelps  is arguably the highest profile free speech case that the High Court will hear this term.

The parties in question are Albert Snyder, the father of deceased marine Lance Corporal Matthew Snyder, and Fred Phelps, the leader of an anti-American, anti-gay, radical church out of Topeka, Kansas (Phelps is listed along with many of his children, including Shirley Phelps-Roper, the well known face of the group in recent years). 

Snyder is suing the Westboro Baptist Church (WBC) for intrusion upon seclusion and intentional infliction of emotional distress. What could have caused such a small tort case to rise to SCOTUS? 

The WBC protested the funeral of Matthew Snyder, who died in a tragic accident in Iraq several years ago, holding signs similar to the ones pictured, in addition to signs reading “Priests Rape Boys,” “Thank God for IEDs,” “God is America’s Terror,” “God Hates Fags,” “Fags Doom Nations,” and “God Hates You.”

It is important to note in this case that the WBC obeyed all established laws in the state of Maryland, where they were protesting. Members were 1000 feet away from the funeral, in a 25 ft x 20 ft cordoned off area and were not verbally disruptive of the proceedings. In addition to their protest — which Albert Snyder did not see during the funeral, but actually on the news that night — the WBC posted an “epic” poem on their website concerning the raising of Matthew Snyder and his service in the military. It was when Albert Snyder saw the poem one day when Googling his son’s name that he decided to sue in court. Having originally sued for about 5 different reasons, including defamation and conspiracy (which the court threw out), Snyder was awarded $11 million by a federal jury in emotional damages. The 4th Circuit Reversed, ruling that Snyder must pay the WBC’s legal fees.

The case is being argued in front of the SCOTUS by Sean Summers for the Snyders, and Margie Phelps, daughter of Fred Phelps, for the WBC.

The Court will have to balance freedom of speech — which the Phelpses and many independent organizations argue would be prematurely killed if the Court made a decision, especially a sweeping one, in favor of the Snyder family — with the right to privacy. 

I’ll be posting updates on developments in this case, including a short review of Wednesday’s arguments as the case develops.

Thoughts? Opinions?

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