Analysis Of The Snyder V. Phelps Legal Case And My Opinion About It

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Table of contents

  1. Snyder v. Phelps: The Facts of the Case
  2. Snyder v. Phelps: The Ruling and Rationale
  3. Snyder v. Phelps: My Views on its Free Speech Significance

Snyder v. Phelps: The Facts of the Case

Fred Phelps, founder of Westboro Baptist Church, has publicized their message that God hates and punishes the use of tolerance of homosexuality particularly in military. The Westboro Baptist Church picketers have traveled for over 20 years across the country to more than 600 military funerals protesting and delivering their message. Phelps and the Westboro Baptist Church protested near Albert Snyder’s son’s funeral. Snyder’s son was killed in non-combat vehicle accident in Iraq.

Albert Snyder sued Fred Phelps for defamation, intrusion upon seclusion, publicity given to private life, intentional infliction of emotional distress, civil conspiracy for protesting at his son’s funeral. The District Court dismissed two claims including defamation and publicity given to private life. The District Court awarded Phelps summary judgment on Snyder’s claim of $2.9 million in compensatory damages and $8 million in punitive damages. Phelps filed several post- trial motions claiming First Amendment rights. The District Court decreased the punitive damages to $2.1 million. Originally, the District Court ruled in Snyder’s favor, but Phelps challenged the verdict and continued until the case went into the supreme court.

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Snyder v. Phelps: The Ruling and Rationale

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the First Amendment protects free speech, especially public speech. First, the Court decided that Snyder could not claim intentional infliction of emotional distress because nothing can stop the freedom of public speech. The Westboro Baptist Church has no previous grudges with Snyder, the protest was not a personal attack, it was just the church’s rhetoric. Second, the Court examined content form and context of the speech revealed by the whole record that proved that it was public speech. Lastly, the Court found that the jury was told that they could file for intention infliction of emotional distress because Westboro picketing was outrageous, but the Supreme Court found Westboro protected by the First Amendment even if the speech was outrageous.

The U.S. Supreme Court reversed the jury’s finding on intrusion upon seclusion and civil conspiracy. It based the fact on the church had followed all the instructions for protesting. The church protestors stayed within the 10 x 25 foot of public land adjacent to public street, behind the temporary fence and stayed 1,000 feet away from funeral church with a building separating the two. Snyder couldn’t see the signs protestors were holding, he only see the protestor’s back of their head’s. Snyder tried claiming Captive Audience Doctrine, but the Supreme Court stated that the church followed all instructions and Snyder had a responsibility to turn his head if Snyder was offended. There was one descending judge and the Court ruled against the jury’s decision which lead to Westboro not paying any compensatory money to Snyder.

Snyder v. Phelps: My Views on its Free Speech Significance

Speech is very powerful and can be positive or negative in today’s world. The speech the Westboro Baptist Church chose to use is “outrageous” and disgusting which also enhanced the sorrow of the victims. The one descending Supreme Court judge “felt that it is not necessary to allow brutalization of victims through speech.” Speech cannot be controlled, but how can we limit hate speech but still have the freedom of speech. I do not think Westboro Baptist Church’s speech influenced government laws or increased the size and effect of their movement. In effect, the group continually lost members and is rarely heard of at present time.

I do believe the U.S. Supreme Court made the right decision on the case. If the U.S. Supreme Court awarded Snyder compensation, the First Amendment would be at risk. Anyone could be offended by someone else’s speech, which would lead to continual cases at the U.S. Supreme Court, which may lead to the loss of our First Amendment right. In my opinion, neither Snyder or Phelps won due to the fact Snyder did not gain any compensation and Phelps continues to lose respect from the country.

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