Hate Speech, Indecency / Obscenity
Pussy Riot v. Russia
Closed Expands Expression
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The Supreme Court of the United States found that the First Amendment protected Westboro Church from liability under tort law for picketing. The Westboro church picketed the funeral of a U.S. solider with slogans such as “You are going to hell,” “Fag troops” and “Thank God for dead soldiers.” They praised soldiers’ deaths as an assumed sign of God’s anger at what they considered to be a liberalization of attitudes by the US army toward LGBTQ members. Snyder, the dead soldier’s father sued the church for intentional infliction of emotional distress, intrusion upon seclusion, and civil conspiracy. The jury of the local court gave a verdict in favor of Snyder, announcing the amount of $10.9 million as damages for the invasion of privacy and intentional infliction of emotional distress. The Fourth Circuit reversed on the grounds of the First Amendment. In a vote of 8-1, the Supreme Court agreed with the decision of the Fourth Circuit and observed that speech on public issues occupies the highest rung of the hierarchy of First Amendment values and is entitled to special protection.
The Westboro church picketed the funeral of a U.S. solider with slogans such as “You are going to hell,” “Fag troops” and “Thank God for dead soldiers.” They praised soldiers’ deaths as an assumed sign of God’s anger at what they considered to be a liberalization of attitudes by the US army toward LGBTQ members. The dead soldier’s father sued the church and the local court resulting in a jury verdict in the amount of $10.9 million in favor of Snyder for the invasion of privacy and intentional infliction of emotional distress. The Fourth Circuit reversed on First Amendment grounds. In a vote of 8-1, the Supreme Court agreed.
Phelps and the supporters of the Westboro church were of the belief that God punishes the United States as a result of its acceptance of homosexuality (particularly in the military). They praised soldiers’ deaths as an assumed sign of God’s anger to what they considered to be a liberization of attitudes by the US army to LGBTQ members. To disseminate their beliefs they would demonstrate they would often picket at military funerals such as the one of Snyder’s son. Phelps and the church’s followers (all Phelps’ relatives) picketed the funeral of a U.S. solider (Phelps’ son) with slogans such as “You are going to hell,” “Fag troops” and “Thank God for dead soldiers.”
The Supreme Court of the United States had to determine whether the First Amendment protected protesters, who cheered the death of a soldier at his funeral, from any liability for inflicting emotional distress his family.
In this case, the Supreme Court underlined that “speech is powerful. It can stir people to action, move them to tears of both joy and sorrow, and as it did here inflict great pain. On the facts before us, we cannot react to that pain by punishing the speaker. As a nation we have chosen a different course – to protect even hurtful speech on public issues to ensure that we do not stifle public debate.” As a result, the Court found that the First Amendment protected Westboro Church from liability under tort law for picketing. Referring to Hustler Magazine, Inc v Falwell, the Court noted that the “free speech clause of the First Amendment can serve as a defense in the state tort suits, including suits for intentional infliction of emotional distress.”
Further, the Court noted that the applicability of the First Amendment in prohibiting the liability of Westboro for its speech “turns largely on whether that speech is of public or private concern, as determined by all the circumstances of the case” thereby contextualizing each case as per its circumstances and facts. In referring to Connick v Myers, the Court noted that “[S]peech on public issues occupies the ‘highest rung of the hierarchy of First Amendment values’ and is entitled to special protection.” It further elaborated on the issue of boundaries and noted that what public speech is and entails is not well defined, but that the Court in San Diego v Roe noted that speech of public concern exists when it can “be fairly considered as relating to any matter of political, social, or other concern to the community.” The Court subsequently noted that determining whether speech is public or private must emanate from an analysis of the speech’s “content, form and context” as per Dun & Bradstreet, Inc v Greenmoss Builders, Inc.
In applying this legal test, the Court noted that the content of Wesboro’s speech relates to “public, rather than private matters” (homosexuality in the military etc). The context of the speech and particularly its connection with Matthew Snyder’s funeral “cannot by itself transform the nature of Westboro’s speech.” The signs held up at Snyder’s funeral reflect the Church’s condemnation of societal issues rather than a “personal attack on Synder.” The signs reflected Westboro’s condemnation of much in modern society, and it cannot be argued that Westboro’s use of speech on public issues was in any way contrived to insulate a personal attack on Snyder from liability. The Court noted that the Church had been actively involved in promoting the content of the speech at Snyder’s funeral elsewhere and that “there can be no serious claim that the picketing did not represent Westboro’s honestly held beliefs on public issues.” As such, the Church may have chosen the particular locket for picketing to increase publicity and dissemination of its views and even if the speech itself was “hurtful” to Snyder (the father), First Amendment Protections still applied.
Nevertheless, the Court importantly noted that as per Frisby v Shultz, the Church’s choice of location and time of the picketing is “not beyond the Government’s regulatory reach” and could be accountable to the government in terms of “reasonable time, place or manner of restriction” as per Clark v Community for Creative Non-Violence. Moreover, Maryland now has a law restricting funeral picketing but that law was not in effect at the material time so the Court was not able to consider whether that law is a “reasonable time, place, or manner restrictio[n]” under the standards announced by this Court.
In his dissenting opinion, Justice Alito, noted, inter alia, the portrayal by the court of the speech in question to constitute public speech to be “quite inaccurate” since the attack on the deceased was “of central importance.” In terms of the Church seeking a public forum to disseminate its ideology, Justice Alito noted that “one might well think that wounding statements uttered in the heat of a private feud are less, not more, blameworthy than similar statements made as part of a cold and calculated strategy to slash a stranger as a means of attracting public attention.” Further, he noted that neither the fighting word doctrine nor defamation is “immunized when they occur in a public place and there is no good reason to treat a verbal assault based on the conduct or character of a private figure like Matthew Synder any differently.”
Decision Direction indicates whether the decision expands or contracts expression based on an analysis of the case.
This case expands expression by removing the possibility of damages under tort law for picketing at a funeral despite the possible emotional distress which may have emanated therefore on the grounds that the picketing constituted public speech.
Global Perspective demonstrates how the court’s decision was influenced by standards from one or many regions.
Case significance refers to how influential the case is and how its significance changes over time.
As a decision of the Supreme Court, this decision binds all lower courts. The decision is of significance as it considers picketing at a private funeral to constitute public speech and thus protected speech under the First Amendment with no tort law claims being able to arise by the deceased’s family due to such protection.
Let us know if you notice errors or if the case analysis needs revision.