SW Legal studies in Business

Hate Speech at Demonstration and on Website Protected by First Amendment
Description

A church group that claims that God hates homosexuality was within its First Amendment rights to picket the funeral of a Marine killed in Iraq and publish hateful statements about him and his family on its website. 

Topic Constitutional Law
Key Words

First Amendment; Speech; Torts

C A S E   S U M M A R Y
Facts

Marine Matthew Snyder was killed in Iraq. His funeral was at a Catholic church in Maryland. Fred Phelps has long been the pastor of a Baptist church he founded in Kansas. Among his beliefs is that God hates homosexuality and punishes American for tolerating homosexuality. To publicize this belief, Phelps and some members of his church picket funerals to get attention. They also have a website, www.godhatesfags.com, to publicize their views. Phelps and some of his family members picketed Snyder’s funeral and alerted the media to their presence. They carried signs saying “God Hates the USA,” “Fag Troops,” “America is doomed,” “Pope in hell,” and “Thank God for dead soldiers.” The picketing at the funeral complied with city rules and drew media attention. After returning to Kansas, Phelps’ church reported the picketing on the website, which they call an “epic.” The site stated that Snyder’s father, Albert, “taught Matthew to defy his creator,” “raised him for the devil,” and “taught him that God was a liar.” Albert Synder sued for intrusion into privacy and mental distress. The jury awarded $2.9 million in compensatory damages and $8 million in punitive damages. The judge reduced the total damage award to $5 million. Phelps appealed.

Decision

Reversed. The signs the protesters carried at the funeral were protected by the First Amendment. No reasonable reader could interpret the signs as asserting actual and verifiable facts about Matthew Snyder or his father. The signs were intended to draw attention and stir debate. The church website that published the “epic” of the crusade against homosexuality and the picketing engaged in is also protected by the First Amendment. A reasonable reader would understand that it was rhetorical hyperbole, not actual facts about the soldier and his father.

Citation

Snyder v. Phelps, ---F.3d--- (2009 WL 3032480, 4th Cir., 2009)

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