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.