Supreme Court argument set in Snyder v. Phelps

by on September 8, 2010  •  In Supreme Court

The Supreme Court will hear argument four weeks from today, on October 6, in Snyder v. Phelps, No. 09-751. So far, this is the only case on this term's docket that involves lgbt-related issues, although the legal questions before the Court have nothing to do with sexuality or gender law.

The case concerns whether the First Amendment permits a civil action against Fred Phelps and others who routinely picket funerals of servicemembers with signs celebrating the death as evidence of God's punishment of the United States for tolerating homosexuality. Examples of the signs:"Thank God for Dead Soldiers" and "You're Going to Hell."

Phelps and his crew conducted their protest at the funeral of Marine Lance Cpl. Matthew Snyder, who was killed in Iraq. They stayed a thousand feet away from the church; many mourners apparently did not see them because traffic was directed along other streets. Matthew's father sued Phelps for invasion of privacy, intentional infliction of emotional distress and other torts. The jury returned a verdict for Snyder of nearly $11 million, mostly punitive damages (later cut by the judge to $5 million).

The Fourth Circuit  overturned the verdict, on the grounds that Phelps's speech, however outrageous, consisted of hyperbolic rhetoric and contained no provably false factual connotations (both First Amendment standards). 

This is truly a case of constitutional protection for disgusting speech. No surprise that the Snyder family got a huge jury verdict. Also no surprise that First Amendment advocates have lined up to support Phelps. Most interesting sidelight in the case: Phelps is being represented by his attorney daughter. Oral argument is going to be a macabre event.


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