In 2006, WBC
arrived in Westminster, Maryland, to picket the funeral of Lance Cpl. Matthew
Snyder, a 20-year-old Westminster native who died in Iraq. The WBC
pickets were kept at a 1000-foot distance from the church itself, and
were shielded from view by a group of motorcycle-riding veterans, but
the funeral procession was diverted from one church entrance to another
in order to avoid them, and Matthew Snyder's father Albert saw the tips
of the signs when he entered and left the church.
A week later,
the Church posted an "epic" on their website, purporting to tell the
life story of Matthew and of how his family raised him to "defy his
creator" and "taught him that God was a liar." Albert Snyder found the
"epic" in a Google search for news about his son.
sued the Church in federal court for the common-law tort of
intentional infliction of emotional distress, which punishes those
who deliberately inflict psychic pain on others by "outrageous" conduct.
WBC moved to dismiss the case on First Amendment grounds, but the
District Court allowed it to go to trial. The jury awarded Albert Snyder nearly $11 million (the judge reduced this to $5 million). The Fourth
Circuit reversed, relying on a famous case called Hustler
Magazine v. Falwell, in which the Court had held that a plaintiff
could not win an intentional-infliction verdict based entirely on public
speech (in this case, a scabrous magazine parody ridiculing the Rev.
Jerry Falwell as an incestuous drunkard) unless he can show that the
speaker made a false statement of fact. Since the parody itself was
labeled NOT TO BE TAKEN SERIOUSLY, Falwell lost.
The most logical
course for the Court would have been to leave this stinker alone.
There's no groundswell of tort actions like this; instead, the reaction
in most states has centered on new statutes barring disruption of a
funeral. Most of those laws would allow demonstrators considerably
nearer the funeral than the WBC pickets ever got. Time enough to test
them when a proper case arose. Just last term, the Court had reaffirmed
a broad reading of the First Amendment in a much less sympathetic case,
States v. Stevens, which held that videos of animals being killed
were, in some cases, protected speech.
But the Court granted
cert., and it heard an hour of argument from Sean Summers, a York,
PA., lawyer who has represented Mr. Snyder pro bono, and from the
soon-to-be-legendary Margie Phelps, a Kansas lawyer who is the daughter
of the Church's pastor, Fred Phelps. By the end, the Justices' comments
gave the eerie impression that Margie Phelps might have singlehandedly
managed to snatch defeat from the jaws of a seemingly all-but-sure
Albert Snyder's best argument was that, unlike the
Rev. Jerry Falwell, he was a private figure who should not have to
overcome the high barrier of the Hustler case. The Fourth Circuit had reasoned
that the Hustler rule "does not depend on the public or private status
of the speech's target." Summers warned the Court that "Under the
Fourth Circuit's interpretation of these facts, Mr. Snyder has
absolutely no remedy, none. He is a private figure, a grieving father,
and he is left without any remedy whatsoever."