The Fourth Circuit hands down a new First Amendment decision today in Snyder v. Phelps.
Snyder is an important case for more than purely doctrinal reasons. It involves the Westboro Baptist Church, a group noted their quaint habit of proselytizing at funerals. The Church sports a website whose address is literally so offensive that I can’t spell it out here, what with this being a family blog. Charming folks, and they seem to have caught the public’s attention. As a result of their activities, about 40 states and the federal government have adopted legislation addressing the picketing of funerals.
The facts of the case are pretty staggering. Westboro Baptist Church protested the funeral of Matthew Snyder, an enlisted Marine who died in the line of duty in Iraq. The Church showed up at his funeral (at a Catholic church) bearing signs saying things like “Pope in hell, “Thank God for IEDs,” and “Thank God for Dead Soldiers.” The Church also saw fit to post on its website an “epic,” a written piece further trumpeting its, err, message.
Snyder’s father sued, alleging five state-law tort claims: defamation, intrusion upon seclusion, publicity given to private life, intentional infliction of emotional distress, and civil conspiracy. A jury found the defendants liable for $2.9 million in compensatory damages and a boatload of punitives, which were remitted to $2.1 million. The defendants appealed.
On appeal, the Fourth Circuit reversed. Citing New York Times Co. v. Sullivan, it noted that the First Amendment circumscribes tort liability under state law, even between private parties. Further, the First Amendment will fully protect statements that cannot reasonably be interpreted as stating actual facts about an individual. The Court identified two subcategories of speech that cannot reasonably be interpreted as stating actual facts about an individual, and is thus constitutionally protected: statements on matters of public concern that do not contain a provably false factual connotation, and rhetorical statements using “loose, figurative, or hyperbolic language.”
The Fourth Circuit found that–as hysterical and reprehensible as the Church’s speech might have been–the district court had erred by letting the jury resolve matters legal issues reserved to the court, and by declining to grant the defendants’ request for judgment as a matter of law. Specifically, the district court had granted an instruction charging the jury with determining the purely legal issue of the scope of protection afforded speech under the First Amendment. The Fourth Circuit determined that a trial was unnecessary. After its review of the entire record, it concluded that the defendants were entitled to judgment as a matter of law.
Judge Shedd concurred in the judgment. Interestingly, he would have reversed on the ground of insufficient evidence–an argument raised only in an amicus brief. The other two judges found that the defendants had waived this point.
Finally, thanks to James Markels of the Virginia Business Law Blog for pointing Snyder out to us.
Update: Even as we speak, multiple discussions of Snyder are running over at the Volokh Conspiracy: Free Speech and Funeral Picketing and The First Amendment and the Media/Nonmedia Distinction.
The VLW Blog is also carrying the story, as are mainstream news outlets.