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Profile: Matthew Snyder
Matthew Snyder was a participant or observer in the following events:
Albert Snyder. [Source: Associated Press]The virulently anti-gay Westboro Baptist Church (WBC—see November 27, 1955 and After) pickets the funeral of Matthew Snyder, a Marine slain in Iraq (see June 2005 and After). WBC protesters display signs with slogans such as “Thank God for Dead Soldiers,” “You’re Going to Hell,” and “Semper Fi Fags,” while another signs depicts two stick figures engaging in what appears to be sodomy. The church also posts derogatory statements about Snyder and his father, Albert Snyder, on its Web site. In response, Albert Snyder sues the church in a Baltimore court for defamation, invasion of privacy, and emotional distress. [New York Times, 10/26/2007; Southern Poverty Law Center, 2012] Snyder claims his First Amendment rights to the freedom of religious exercise and assembly were violated, and the WBC claims its right to freedom of speech is violated by Snyder’s lawsuit. Snyder names WBC pastor Fred W. Phelps Sr.; church officials Shirley Phelps-Roper and Rebekah A. Phelps-Davis, and other adult members of the church, including two of the elder Phelps’s daughters. The Phelpses and four of the pastor’s grandchildren picketed the funeral. [Topeka Capital-Journal, 10/2/2010] First Amendment expert Ronald K.L. Collins is leery of the case, saying: “The dangerous principle here is runaway liability in a way that would put the First Amendment in serious jeopardy. I dread to think what it would do to political protests in this country if it were allowed the win.” [New York Times, 10/26/2007]
Judge Richard D. Bennett of the US District Court in Maryland orders liens against properties owned by the anti-gay Westboro Baptist Church (WBC—see November 27, 1955 and After) to secure damages awarded at trial. For decades, the WBC has protested against homosexuality and other “offenses,” and has since 2005 picketed soldiers’ funerals (see June 2005 and After), causing tremendous controversy. The church is being sued by Albert Snyder, whose son, Lance Corporal Matthew Snyder, died in service. The WBC protested at the younger Snyder’s funeral, prompting the lawsuit (see March 10, 2006 and After). The jury awarded the Snyder family $11 million in compensatory and punitive damages (see October 2007), but Bennett reduces this to $5 million, which includes $2.1 million in punitive charges. One of Snyder’s lawyers says, based on his analysis of WBC financial records, that if the church is forced to pay even the lower amount, it would likely drive it into bankruptcy. [Southern Poverty Law Center, 12/2007; Topeka Capital-Journal, 4/4/2008]
An appeals court overturns the verdict in Snyder v. Phelps, in which the father of a slain Marine was awarded $5 million in a judgment against the anti-gay Westboro Baptist Church (WBC—see November 27, 1955 and After). WBC members had picketed the funeral of Matthew Snyder (see March 10, 2006 and After), and Snyder’s father Albert Snyder filed a lawsuit against the WBC claiming harassment and the infliction of severe emotional distress (see October 2007 and April 3, 2008). The appeals court rules that even though the WBC protesters displayed “utterly distasteful” signs at Snyder’s funeral, the signs commented on issues of “public concern” and were therefore constitutionally protected speech. The court also orders Snyder to pay the church over $16,000 in legal feels and court costs, a decision Snyder calls “a slap in the face.” Snyder will appeal to the US Supreme Court (see March 2, 2011). [Southern Poverty Law Center, 12/2007; Southern Poverty Law Center, 2012; Anti-Defamation League, 2012]
The US Supreme Court finds in favor of the vehemently anti-gay Westboro Baptist Church (WBC—see November 27, 1955 and After) in a court case brought by the father of a slain Marine whose funeral was disrupted by a WBC protest (see March 10, 2006 and After and October 2007). A court initially rendered an initial judgment of $5 million against the group for causing “excessive” pain and suffering to the family (see April 3, 2008), but an appeals court overturned that verdict (see March 2010). Snyder appealed to the Supreme Court, arguing that as a private citizen and not a public figure, he had an expectation of privacy that the WBC violated. “The [WBC protesters’] freedom of speech should have ended where it conflicted with Mr. Snyder’s freedom to participate in his son’s funeral, which was intended to be a solemn religious gathering,” Snyder’s lawyers argued before the Court. For their side, WBC lawyers, including church member Margie Phelps, argued that Snyder was indeed something of a public figure because he spoke to reporters after his son’s death and after the funeral, including giving quotes to reporters that excoriated the WBC. Additionally, the WBC denied interfering with or disrupting the funeral, and said that it was “well within the bounds of the law” when it picketed the funeral and used speech that was “hyperbolic, figurative, and hysterical.” The WBC pickets funerals, its lawyers argued, “to use an available public platform when the living contemplate death, to deliver the message that there is a consequence for sin.… It was about publicly-funded funerals of publicly-funded soldiers dying in an extremely public war because of very public policies of sin, including homosexuality, divorce, remarriage, and Roman Catholic priests molesting children.… The fact the speech was hyperbolic, figurative, and hysterical is why it should be protected. [It is] the essence of the kind of robust speech on critical public issues for which the First Amendment was written.” The Court rules 8-1 in favor of the WBC, saying that the group’s First Amendment rights protect it in debating public issues. Only Justice Samuel Alito dissents. The Court also notes that the WBC obeyed directions from local officials, kept a distance from the church where the Snyder funeral was held, and did not directly disrupt the funeral service. Writing for the majority, Chief Justice John Roberts finds: “Speech is powerful. It can stir people to action, move them to tears of both joy and sorrow, and—as it did here—inflict great pain. On the facts before us, we cannot react to that pain by punishing the speaker. As a nation we have chosen a different course—to protect even hurtful speech on public issues to ensure that we do not stifle public debate.” Many critics celebrate the reversal, saying that while the WBC’s actions were reprehensible, the original trial verdict, which found grounds for cause under the tort of intentional infliction of emotional distress, could be used to suppress freedom of expression in a number of other venues. [Topeka Capital-Journal, 10/2/2010; Topeka Capital-Journal, 3/2/2011; Anti-Defamation League, 2012; Southern Poverty Law Center, 2012] Opponents of the WBC say they are relieved that the ruling does not impact laws designed to protect grieving families from the church’s protests at funerals (see January 11, 2011). Kansas Attorney General Derek Schmidt criticizes the Court’s ruling, saying: “Today’s decision is a disappointment for Kansans who have endured for so long the embarrassment brought upon our state by the shameful conduct of the Westboro Baptist Church. Our hearts go out to the Snyder family whose pain and distress were at issue in this case.” [Topeka Capital-Journal, 3/2/2011] Doug Anstaett, executive director of the Kansas Press Association, says the ruling is more positive than negative: “Our highest court has reinforced the belief that our individual rights to free speech and assembly are so critical that we all must be willing to tolerate even that which the majority might find abhorrent.… It doesn’t say that what the Phelps family does or says is right. It simply says that in the United States, it is protected speech. When we start regulating speech, we’re headed down a very slippery slope. The Supreme Court is to be commended for refusing to take that route.” Snyder says the ruling shows that “eight justices don’t have the sense God gave a goat.” [Topeka Capital-Journal, 3/2/2011]
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