“Hurtful” Speech on “Matters of Public Concern” Is Protected by the First Amendment

Snyder v. Phelps, 131 S. Ct. 1207 (2011).   Members of a Baptist church who believe that God punishes the United States and its military for tolerating homosexuality picketed near a soldier’s funeral.  They did that on a public street, behind a fence, and did not interrupt the funeral.  But although the grieving family could not see the picketers’ signs, many of which were extreme in their sentiments, the family felt seriously upset by the picketing.  The family sued the church members for intentional infliction of emotional distress and won a multi-million dollar jury verdict.  The question in the case was “whether the First Amendment shields the church members from tort liability for their speech in this case.”  By an 8-1 vote, the Supreme Court said that the First Amendment protected the church members and required the jury verdict to be vacated.  Chief Justice Roberts wrote the majority opinion.  Justice Alito was the lone dissenter.

The Court observed that “[s]peech on ‘matters of public concern’ … is ‘at the heart of the First Amendment’s protection,'” citing cases from 1978 and 1985.  Though “the boundaries of the public concern test are not well defined,” the church’s signs, which were critical of American policies toward homosexuality, related to “broad issues of interest to society at large, rather than matters of ‘purely private concern.'”  Since the church’s “speech was at a public place on a matter of public concern, that speech is entitled to ‘special protection’ under the First Amendment.”  That was so even though the Court acknowledged that the speech was “hurtful” to the soldier’s family.  “As a Nation, we have chosen … to protect even hurtful speech on public issues to ensure that we do not stifle public debate.” 

The decision is not a surprise.  Previous Supreme Court decisions had stated that speech on matters of public concern is protected even when it offends someone.  The church’s signs were unusually vitriolic and hate-filled, and the church took advantage of the context of a military funeral to advance its message.  Those facts led to the potential that the Court might not apply standard First Amendment doctrine.  But Chief Justice Roberts and the majority did so.