Berman & Asbel, LLP

Military Funeral Protest Case Argued before Supreme Court today

Today the U.S. Supreme Court hears arguments in the case of Snyder v. Phelps.  As the Supreme Court's blog puts it, the issue is: Does the First Amendment protect protesters at a funeral from liability for intentionally inflicting emotional distress on the family of the deceased?

Basically, the plaintiff is Albert Snyder, the father of a Marine who was killed in Iraq in 2006.  At the funeral, Fred Phelps and his cohorts from Westboro Baptist Chuch showed up to demonstrate very loudly and holding signs such as "God hates the USA" and "Thank God for dead soldiers."  Phelps and company believe that the America is a sinful nation and they claim that American deaths in Iraq and Afghanistan are divine punishment for what they see as American immorality in the form of tolerance for homosexuality and abortion, among other things.

The Snyder family, not surprisingly, was deeply hurt and upset about this taking place at the funeral for a loved one who gave his life for his country.  Mr. Snyder filed suit for intentional infliction of emotion distress and won a trial verdict of $5 million in damages.  The Court of Appeals, however, reversed and threw out the verdict on the basis that the behavior of Phelps and company was protected under the Free Speech provisions of the First Amendment.

Apparently there is no dispute that Phelps and company did comply with local laws on how far away from the service they had to be while protesting.
Mr. Snyder is arguing, among other points, that other free speech cases involved protests directed at institutions or public figures but he is a private citizen who was holding a private religious service to honor and bury his son and thus had a right to his privacy.  Mr. Snyder also argues that for the courts to allow Phelps to carry on like this at a private religious service violates the bereaved family's right to Freedom of Religion, also guaranteed under the First Amendment.
One point made by the plaintiff is that while the protesters have opportunities to demonstrate and express their views anytime and anywhere, he only had one chance to hold a solemn funeral service for his son and that the defendants ruined it.

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