WASHINGTON, D.C. - (Mealey's) A man who was trying to bury his dead son, a member of the U.S. military, in a "private, dignified manner" was entitled to call upon Maryland's tort law when he was prevented from doing so, the attorney representing Albert Snyder argued Oct. 6 before the U.S. Supreme Court (Albert Snyder v. Fred W. Phelps, Sr., et al., No. 09-751, U.S. Sup.).
Albert Snyder sued Pastor Fred W. Phelps Sr., Shirley Phelps-Roper, Rebekah A. Phelps-Davis and Westboro Baptist Church Inc. (WBC) in the U.S. District Court for the District of Maryland after they staged a protest at his son's funeral, holding signs stating that the soldier died because God is striking down U.S. troops as a result of America's acceptance of homosexuality. Snyder alleged that in addition to making defamatory remarks, some of which were shouted at the funeral and others that were posted on the church's Web site, the defendants intruded upon a private funeral and that their conduct has been sufficiently outrageous as to entitle Snyder to punitive damages.
The defendants denied all allegations and argued that the District of Maryland lacked jurisdiction and venue over the defendants and the issues in the complaint. They said Snyder was not eligible for any judgment for harm to his son or his son's estate because the lawsuit was brought in Albert Snyder's individual capacity only.
In October 2007, a jury awarded Snyder $10.9 million, of which $2.9 million was for compensatory damages and the remaining $8 million was for punitive damage. The punitive damages award was reduced to $2.1 million in February 2008. The defendants appealed.
The Fourth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals on Sept. 24, 2009, reversed the trial court, finding that it erred in not awarding the defendants judgment as a matter of law. The appellate panel ruled that although the defendants' chosen messages were "distasteful and repugnant," free speech reigns, and tort liability cannot be attached to constitutionally protected speech. Snyder appealed to the Supreme Court.
Opposing the idea that the WBC members' speech was protected under the U.S. Constitution, Sean E. Summers of Barley Snyder in York, Pa., told the high court justices: "Here what we are talking about is a private funeral. . . . I would hope that the First Amendment wasn't enacted to allow people to disrupt and harass people at someone else's private funeral."
Arguing on behalf of the church and its members, Margie J. Phelps of Topeka, Kan., told the high court that the church members did not use "fighting words" and were discussing a matter of public interest. "The words that were at issue in this case were people from a church delivering a religious viewpoint, commenting not only on the broader public issues that the discussion was underway in this nation about dying soldiers, about the morals of the nation."
[Editor's Note: Full coverage will be in the October issue of Mealey's Litigation Report: Data and Identity Security. In the meantime, the oral arguments transcript is available at www.mealeysonline.com or by calling the Customer Support Department at 1-800-833-9844. Document #74-101022-005T. For all of your legal news needs, please visit www.lexisnexis.com/mealeys.]
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