©2011 Jack Ryan, Attorney, PATC Legal & Liability Risk Management Institute (www.llrmi.com) Snyder v. Phelps

What does the Westboro Baptist Church Case Mean to Law Enforcement?

A new case from the United States Supreme Court has led some law enforcement officials to question what their course of action should be if they were to have a protest at a military funeral.  These questions arise from the United States Supreme Court decision in Snyder v. Phelps. [i]

Over the last twenty years, the Westboro Baptist Church has conducted protests at more than 600 military funerals.  The congregation at the Westboro Baptist Church believes that God hates and punishes the United States for its toleration of homosexuality, particularly in the military.

Fred Phelps, the founder of the Westboro Baptist Church became aware of the funeral of Marine Lance Corporal Matthew Snyder and decided to travel with six members of his congregation to Maryland, to protest Matthew Snyder’s funeral.  The six members of the congregation were made up of Phelps’ two daughters and his four grandchildren.

The Court noted the following facts concerning the picketing:

On the day of the memorial service, the Westboro congregation members picketed on public land adjacent to public streets near the Maryland State House, the United States Naval Academy, and Matthew Snyder’s funeral. The Westboro picketers carried signs that were largely the same at all three locations. They stated, for instance: “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 church had notified the authorities in advance of its intent to picket at the time of the funeral, and the picketers complied with police instructions in staging their demonstration. The picketing took place within a 10- by 25-foot plot of public land adjacent to a public street, behind a temporary fence. That plot was approximately 1,000 feet from the church where the funeral was held. Several buildings separated the picket site from the church.  The Westboro picketers displayed their signs for about 30 minutes before the funeral began and sang hymns and recited Bible verses. None of the picketers entered church property or went to the cemetery. They did not yell or use profanity, and there was no violence associated with the picketing.

The funeral procession passed within 200 to 300 feet of the picket site. Although Snyder testified that he could see the tops of the picket signs as he drove to the funeral, he did not see what was written on the signs until later that night, while watching a news broadcast covering the event. [cites omitted].

Mr. Snyder, the father of this young Marine, who died while serving the United States, filed a lawsuit against the Westboro Church, Mr. Phelps and his daughters.  Following a trial on several claims, the jury awarded Snyder a verdict of several million dollars including both compensatory and punitive damages.  The Westboro Church appealed the case and the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit, agreed with the Westboro Church, that their protest was protected on First Amendment grounds.  This decision led Mr. Snyder to appeal to the United States Supreme Court.

At the outset of the Court’s review of the case, the Court noted the significant distinction between matters of public concern which receive the highest 1st Amendment protection and matters which are private.  The Court noted that the very essence of the 1st Amendment is the need for public debate on matters of public concern.

The Court then articulated the framework for determining whether particular speech or expression is a matter of public concern:

Speech deals with matters of public concern when it can “be fairly considered as relating to any matter of political, social, or other concern to the community,” Connick, supra, at 146, 103 S. Ct. 1684, 75 L. Ed. 2d 708, or when it “is a subject of legitimate news interest; that is, a subject of general interest and of value and concern to the public,” San Diego, supra, at 83-84, 125 S. Ct. 521, 160 L. Ed. 2d 410. See Cox Broadcasting Corp. v. Cohn, 420 U.S. 469, 492-494, 95 S. Ct. 1029, 43 L. Ed. 2d 328 (1975); Time, Inc. v. Hill, 385 U.S. 374, 387- 388, 87 S. Ct. 534, 17 L. Ed. 2d 456 (1967). The arguably “inappropriate or controversial character of a statement is irrelevant to the question whether it deals with a matter of public concern.” Rankin v. McPherson, 483 U.S. 378, 387, 107 S. Ct. 2891, 97 L. Ed. 2d 315 (1987).

Our opinion in Dun & Bradstreet, on the other hand, provides an example of speech of only private concern. In that case we held, as a general matter, that information about a particular individual’s credit report “concerns no public issue.” 472 U.S., at 762, 105 S. Ct. 2939, 86 L. Ed. 2d 593. The content of the report, we explained, “was speech solely in the individual interest of the speaker and its specific business audience.” Ibid. That was confirmed by the fact that the particular report was sent to only five subscribers to the reporting service, who were bound not to disseminate it further. Ibid. To cite another example, we concluded in San Diego v. Roe that, in the context of a government employer regulating the speech of its employees, videos of an employee engaging in sexually explicit acts did not address a public concern; the videos “did nothing to inform the public about any aspect of the [employing agency’s] functioning or operation.

The Court applied these parameters to the Westboro speech as asserted through the picketers’ signs and concluded that the speech did relate to matters of public concern.

The Court also noted that the protest was held on public property adjacent to a public street.  The Court reiterated the often cited conclusion that public streets and property are of heightened importance in terms of free speech and assembly and subject to greater Constitutional protection.

The case does not stand for the proposition that government has no control over speech in a public place, as time, place and manner of speech restrictions issued by government may still be Constitutional. The Court noted, that while Maryland did not have a funeral protest statute in place at the time of this event, there is such a statute in place today, as there is in 43 states as well as a federal statute.  The Court did not consider the Constitutionality of these statutes but there seems to be an implicit suggestion in the decision that such statutes, relating to time place and manner would be Constitutional if reasonably based on a government interest.

The Court cited a number of cases where laws governing time, place and manner of speech were examined and upheld.

That said, “[e]ven protected speech is not equally permissible in all places and at all times.” Id., at 479, 108 S. Ct. 2495, 101 L. Ed. 2d 420 (quoting Cornelius v. NAACP Legal Defense & Ed. Fund, Inc., 473 U.S. 788, 799, 105 S. Ct. 3439, 87 L. Ed. 2d 567 (1985)). Westboro’s choice of where and when to conduct its picketing is not beyond the Government’s regulatory reach — it is “subject to reasonable time, place, or manner restrictions” that are consistent with the standards announced in this Court’s precedents. Clark v. Community for Creative Non-Violence, 468 U.S. 288, 293, 104 S. Ct. 3065, 82 L. Ed. 2d 221 (1984). Maryland now has a law imposing restrictions on funeral picketing, Md. Crim. Law Code Ann. § 10-205 (Lexis Supp. 2010), as do 43 other States and the Federal Government. See Brief for American Legion as Amicus Curiae 18-19, n. 2 (listing statutes). To the extent these laws are content neutral, they raise very different questions from the tort verdict at issue in this case. Maryland’s law, however, was not in effect at the time of the events at issue here, so we have no occasion to consider how it might apply to facts such as those before us, or whether it or other similar regulations are constitutional.  

CASE FOOTNOTE The Maryland law prohibits picketing within 100 feet of a funeral service or funeral procession; Westboro’s picketing would have complied with that restriction.

We have identified a few limited situations where the location of targeted picketing can be regulated under provisions that the Court has determined to be content neutral. In Frisby, for example, we upheld a ban on such picketing “before or about” a particular residence, 487 U.S., at 477, 108 S. Ct. 2495, 101 L. Ed. 2d 420. In Madsen v.  [*25] Women’s Health Center, Inc., we approved an injunction requiring a buffer zone between protesters and an abortion clinic entrance. 512 U.S. 753, 768, 114 S. Ct. 2516, 129 L. Ed. 2d 593 (1994). The facts here are obviously quite different, both with respect to the activity being regulated and the means of restricting those activities.

Simply put, the church members had the right to be where they were. Westboro alerted local authorities to its funeral protest and fully complied with police guidance on where the picketing could be staged. The picketing was conducted under police supervision some 1,000 feet from the church, out of the sight of those at the church. The protest was not unruly; there was no shouting, profanity, or violence.

The record confirms that any distress occasioned by Westboro’s picketing turned on the content and viewpoint of the message conveyed, rather than any interference with the funeral itself. A group of parishioners standing at the very spot where Westboro stood, holding signs that said “God Bless America” and “God Loves You,” would not have been subjected to liability. It was what Westboro said that exposed it to tort damages.

Given that Westboro’s speech was at a public place on a matter of public concern, that speech is entitled to “special protection” under the First Amendment. Such speech cannot be restricted simply because it is upsetting or arouses contempt. “If there is a bedrock principle underlying the First Amendment, it is that the government may not prohibit the expression of an idea simply because society finds the idea itself offensive or disagreeable.” Texas v. Johnson, 491 U.S. 397, 414, 109 S. Ct. 2533, 105 L. Ed. 2d 342 (1989). Indeed, “the point of all speech protection . . . is to shield just those choices of content that in someone’s eyes are misguided, or even hurtful.”

The Court concluded that its decision was very narrow and based only on the facts before it.

Key Points for Law Enforcement   

This case was about a lawsuit and tort damages given to a private citizen and was not challenging laws relating to prohibitions on picketing.

All states, cities, towns, and local governments would be well advised to review local statutes and ordinances on funeral and other protests to determine if the ordinances are content neutral which means rules are not directed at the type of speech but rather apply to all speech, good or bad, and are based on some reasonable time, place or manner restriction.

When notified of a protest or demonstration, law enforcement should apply reasonable time, place, and manner restrictions currently in existence, in an impartial and content neutral manner, in other words, don’t ever consider what is going to be said or expressed, instead look to the existing laws on time, place, and manner of speech.

Always note that if there is no immediate public safety issue, immediate enforcement is not likely the best avenue for law enforcement to take when dealing with 1st Amendment speech/expression issues.

An additional important concept to recognize is that while public safety may require a separation between the protestors and their target, too large a separation may violate the protestors’ right to be within sight and sound of their target of protest.


First Amendment Meets the Confederate Flag at Public School (Legal Update 2010)

Inmates and Freedom of Religion (7th Circuit Jail/Corrections Legal Update)

Use of TASER in Drive-Stun Mode on Protestors: Objectively Reasonable in 2nd Circuit (Legal Update 2010)

BROWSE ARTICLE ARCHIVES AT https://llrmi.com/articles/


[i] Snyder v. Phelps, 2011 U.S. LEXIS 1903 (2011).

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