A federal trial court in Maryland awarded Mr. Snyder an $11 million judgment, an amount later reduced to $5 million. But the church appealed, and the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond, Va., threw out the judgment, ruling the protest was protected under the First Amendment.
The Supreme Court, which heard arguments in the case in October, backed the appellate court’s decision.
The high court said Westboro Baptist’s protest is protected under the First Amendment because it focused on matters of public concern, namely the “political and moral conduct of the United States,” gays in the military and the sexual-abuse scandal surrounding the Catholic Church.
Chief Justice Roberts noted the “messages may fall short of refined social or political commentary,” but he said the church members have engaged in many such protests, and nothing suggests they used “speech on public matters” to “mask an attack on Snyder over a private matter.”
“And even if a few of the signs — such as “You’re Going to Hell” and “God Hates You” — were viewed as containing messages related to Matthew Snyder or the Snyders specifically, that would not change the fact that the overall thrust and dominant theme of Westboro’s demonstration spoke to broader public issues,” the chief justice wrote.
Chief Justice Roberts also wrote that the protesters followed the directions of law enforcement officials, gathering 1,000 feet from the church and out of the sight of funeral goers. The protest included no shouting, profanity or violence.
Mr. Snyder testified during trial that he could only see the tops of the protesters’ signs when the funeral procession passed within about 200 to 300 feet of the picketers. He said he later learned the content of the signs from news reports.
The chief justice acknowledged that the legal term “emotional distress” fails to fully capture “the anguish Westboro Baptist’s choice added to Mr. Snyder’s already incalculable grief.” But, he added, a peaceful protest in a public space on public issues occupies a “special position in terms of First Amendment protection.”
“Westboro’s funeral picketing is certainly hurtful, and its contribution to public discourse may be negligible,” Chief Justice Roberts wrote. “But Westboro addressed matters of public import on public property, in a peaceful manner, in full compliance with the guidance of local officials.”