Law School Case Brief
Snyder v. Phelps - 562 U.S. 443, 131 S. Ct. 1207 (2011)
Speech deals with matters of public concern when it can be fairly considered as relating to any matter of political, social, or other concern to the community, or when it is a subject of legitimate news interest; that is, a subject of general interest and of value and concern to the public. The arguably inappropriate or controversial character of a statement is irrelevant to the question whether it deals with a matter of public concern.
A father of a marine who was killed in the line of duty filed suit against protestors, who picketed for about 30 minutes before the funeral of his son began on public land approximately 1,000 feet from the church where the funeral was held. The protesters picketed military funerals to communicate its belief that God hates the United States for its tolerance of homosexuality, particularly in America's military. A jury held the picketers liable for millions of dollars in compensatory and punitive damages. The picketers challenged the verdict as grossly excessive and sought judgment as a matter of law on the ground that the First Amendment fully protected its speech. The District Court reduced the punitive damages award but left the verdict otherwise intact. On appeal, the Fourth Circuit concluded that the picketers statements were entitled to First Amendment protection.
Are the picketers protected by their freedom of speech?
The judgment of the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit was affirmed. The content of the protestors' signs plainly related to broad issues of interest to society at large, rather than matters of purely private concern. While the messages may have fallen short of refined social or political commentary, the issues they highlighted--the political and moral conduct of the United States and its citizens, the fate of the nation, homosexuality in the military, and scandals involving the Catholic clergy--were matters of public import. The context of the speech and its connection with the funeral did not make the speech a matter of private rather than public concern. Simply put, the protestors had the right to be where they were. They alerted local authorities to their funeral protest and fully complied with police guidance on where the picketing could be staged. The picketing was conducted under police supervision some 1,000 feet from the church, out of the sight of those at the church. The protest was not unruly; there was no shouting, profanity, or violence. Any distress occasioned by the picketing turned on the content and viewpoint of the message conveyed, rather than any interference with the funeral itself.
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