Supreme Court Weighs Privacy and Free Speech Versus Right to Gay-Bash at a Funeral


The Supreme Court will hear oral arguments today in the legal battle between the family of Lance Corporal Matthew Snyder and the fundamentalist Westboro Baptist Church, which protested at Synder’s funeral. Pastor Fred Phelps has convinced his Topeka, Kansas–based church that the death of U.S. soldiers is a punishment from God for the “sin of homosexuality.” Matthew, who was not gay, was 20-years-old when he died in Iraq. In 2006, members of the church traveled to Westminster, Maryland to protest 300 feet from his funeral. Matthew’s father, Albert Snyder, sued the church for invasion of privacy, emotional distress and civil conspiracy.

A jury sided with the family, ultimately awarding $5 million in damages. But after an appeal in 2008, the 4th District reversed the judgment on the grounds that the church’s First Amendment rights were violated. Church members have participated in hundreds of other funeral protests, including picketing at the funeral of Matthew Shepard. The justices will be weighing how far states and private institutions can go to justify zones that prohibit picketing or “floating buffers” that restrict speech or movement of demonstrators.

Supreme Court weighs extent of free speech rights at funerals