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.
For the past 20 years, the congregation of the Westboro Baptist Church picketed military funerals to communicate its belief that God hates the United States for its tolerance of homosexuality, particularly in America's military. The church's picketing also condemned the Catholic Church for scandals involving its clergy. Fred Phelps, who founded the church, and six Westboro Baptist parishioners (all relatives of Phelps) traveled to Maryland to picket the funeral of Marine Lance Corporal Matthew Snyder, who was killed in Iraq in the line of duty. The picketing took place on public land where the funeral was held, approximately 1,000 feet from the church, in accordance with guidance from local law enforcement officers. The picketers peacefully displayed their signs -stating, e.g., “Thank God for Dead Soldiers,” “Fags Doom Nations,” “America is Doomed,” “Priests Rape Boys,” and “You're Going to Hell” - for about 30 minutes before the funeral began. Matthew Snyder's father (Snyder), petitioner, saw the tops of the picketers' signs when driving to the funeral, but did not learn what was written on the signs until watching a news broadcast later that night. Snyder filed a diversity action against Phelps, his daughters who participated in the picketing, and the church (collectively Westboro) alleging state tort claims of intentional infliction of emotional distress, intrusion upon seclusion, and civil conspiracy. A jury held Westboro liable for millions of dollars in compensatory and punitive damages. Westboro 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. The Fourth Circuit reversed, concluding that Westboro's statements were entitled to First Amendment protection because those statements were on matters of public concern, were not provably false, and were expressed solely through hyperbolic rhetoric.
Were the statements of the picketers protected by the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution?
The Court held that the First Amendment shields Westboro from tort liability for its picketing in this case. According to the Court, 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 Court held that the context of the speech and its connection with the funeral did not make the speech a matter of private rather than public concern. The Court found that the protestors had the right to be where they were. In the case at bar, the protestors 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 and there was no shouting, profanity, or violence. In conclusion, the Court ruled that any distress occasioned by the picketing turned on the content and viewpoint of the message conveyed, rather than any interference with the funeral itself.