U.S. Marine Lance Corporal Matthew A. Snyder was killed in a vehicle accident in Iraq on March 3, 2006. On March 10, 2006, Westboro Baptist Church picketed at Snyder’s funeral as they had done over 600 times in the past 20 years. The church proclaimed that God kills soldiers because of “an increasing tolerance of sin (mainly homosexuality) (Phelps. Web)”. Albert Snyder, father of Matthew, is suing Fred Phelps, founder of Westboro Baptist Church for intentional infliction of emotional distress. This case is mainly a matter of what extent the United States Constitution protects the right to protest.
I will first begin on the side supporting Snyder and reveal more details and facts as I explain his side. When Snyder arrived at the church to bury his son, he caught glimpses of the tops of picket signs but was not able to read what they said. Later while watching the news, he was flabbergasted to learn what was being said. “Thank God for Dead Soldiers” was among the dozens of horrid signs exhibited at his son’s funeral. With this event burning in his mind, Snyder became the first person to sue Westboro Baptist Church in the 20-plus years they have existed.
Snyder sued Phelps November 2007 in a Baltimore court and a jury ruled close to an $11 million in favor of Snyder. However, a 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals reversed the verdict, ruling Westboro’s protest was constitutionally protected speech. In an astonishing twist, Snyder was also ordered to pay Phelps for the cost of his court fees.
After bringing the case to the Supreme Court a few details surfaced in favor of Snyder. Westboro Baptist Church encouraged broadcasters to come to the funeral, making it a public media event. This is important because Snyder was also trying to sue for invasion of privacy. Concurring that law suit, the church wrote a demeaning article directly to the Snyder family. In the article, WBC claimed that the parents of the deceased marine raised him for the devil and did not raise him to serve the Lord, referring to their Catholic faith. The article also claimed after raising him this way, the Snyders:
“…Sent him to fight for the United States of Sodom, a filthy country that is in lock step with his evil, wicked, and sinful manner of life, putting him in the cross hairs of a God that is so mad, he has smoke coming from his nostrils and fire from his mouth (WBC,Web)”.
The law suit that Snyder is suing Phelps for is intentional infliction of emotional distress. This tort (a wrongful act of an infringement of a right) contains four elements:
- the defendant must act intentionally or recklessly;
- the defendant’s conduct must be extreme and outrageous; and
- the conduct must be the cause (4) of severe emotional distress.
Moving on to the side for Phelps. Phelps founded Westboro Baptist Church, whose members are mainly related to Phelps. They have been picketing at funerals, police stations, schools, other states, and even other countries. They have been gaining attention from the media and encouraging them to broadcast their picketing. With encouragement and teaching from Phelps, they believe God is outraged and killing/punishing citizens for their country’s sin. They have an established website named “godhatesfags.com” and daily preach the word of hate.
Phelps definitely has done research and is fully protecting themselves for such an occasion of getting sued. Before each picket, they are sure to receive guidance from local law enforcement officers on where they can picket. In the case of Snyder v Phelps, they were exactly 1,000 feet, on public property, from the church where the funeral was being held. In the court documents, most justices say they were being peaceful when they displayed their signs, while one other says they were verbally attacking Snyder and his family. However the facts, they displayed signs about 30 minutes before the funeral began and Snyder admitted to not being able to read the signs until he got home, proving they did not disturb his presence.
Phelps claimed he is fully protected by the first amendment, which states :
“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”
Despite Snyder claiming he has suffered extreme emotional trauma and the church not claiming it isn’t true, the Supreme Court ruled 8 to 1 in favor of Fred Phelps on March 2, 2011. They claimed he is indeed fully protected by the first amendment. They ruled that the church did not disrupt the funeral in any way. They were in fact on public property, thanks to the officer’s advice, and were peacefully protesting.