Albert Snyder, a military father sued Phelps, Westboro Baptist Church, and other affiliated characters in 2006, winning a verdict of $10.9 million for picketing his son, Lance Cpl. Matthew Snyder’s funeral. However, later judicial action reduced the award to $5 million, and after that, the award was struck down entirely. It is unclear if action is still pending, but it does not appear any higher court was willing to hear the case (UPDATE: Albert Snyder wrote to me to say that they are still waiting to hear if the Supreme Court will hear their case).
So, today, we heard from the Supreme Court, and Mr. Snyder’s prayers have been answered–the case will be heard in the fall. For what it’s worth, Margie Phelps, who was the older woman at the Stanford and Gunn protests is, per her sister, likely to argue the case (she was certainly the most belligerent of the members present at Stanford and Gunn, repeatedly shouting down people who tried to engage with her). The case was initially resolved in Snyder’s favor “on the grounds that the funeral protests invaded their privacy and intentionally inflicted emotional distress,” then overturned on free speech grounds.
Without speculating too much, one could imagine that the Supreme Court would be able to reinstate the award to Snyder without setting too wide of a precedent. The First Amendment is not an unlimited right, (the famous example of banned speech is shouting “fire” in a crowded theatre–unless it’s actually on fire, then I think that’s protected) and it has been abridged in the past for offensive speech.
Whether ruling in favor of Mr. Snyder would create a new legal doctrine or not, it would be a rather significant financial hit (the church claims it spends $250,000 on pickets annually). Perhaps a defeat here would mean the end of the WBC’s activities, but I would doubt it, considering that the case is filed as Snyder v. Phelps, not against the church itself. Perhaps some of my more legally-inclined peers can fill in the blanks on this one and correctly predict what the Supreme Court is going to do here.