Fightin' words

Fighting words, First Amendment, Snyder v Phelps, Westboro Baptist Church -

Fightin' words

SNYDER v. PHELPS (No. 09-751)

Is a case revolving around a tort claim filed by Albert Snyder, the father of Marine Lance Corporal Matthew Snyder, over picketing at his son’s funeral by the Westboro Baptist Church. LCPL Matthew Snyder was killed in the line of duty serving in Operation Iraqi Freedom and buried in Westminster Maryland. His funeral was picketed by the Westboro Baptist church because of their dogmatic belief that “God Hates the United States for its tolerance of homosexuality, particularly in America’s military.” (Snyder v. Phelps, 2011)  Albert Snyder sued the leader of the Westboro Baptist Church Fred Phelps and two of his daughters who attended the picket. Albert Snyder sued for “intentional infliction of emotional distress, intrusion upon seclusion, and civil conspiracy.” (Snyder v. Phelps, 2011)

The facts of the case: The Westboro Baptist Church has for the past 30 years made known their views regarding homosexuality and the death of military service members and has picketed over 600 funerals. The picketing took place on public land nearly 1,000 feet from the funeral service and complied with local ordnance. The protestors held signs for about 30 minutes before the funeral exclaiming “Thank God for Dead Soldiers,” “Fags Doom Nations,” “Priests rape Boys” and so on without major incident. Albert Snyder did not personally see the signs until after the funeral on a news broadcast because they were partially obstructed by a counter protest group during the funeral. (Snyder v. Phelps, 2011)

Snyder initially won his civil claim before a jury, but this was later overturned by the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals, and eventually reached the Supreme Court in October of 2010. The Supreme Court agreed with the Fourth Circuit Court and found even though the content of the speech may have been found deplorable, it was indeed protected speech. The reasons behind the Court’s decision are laid out in John Roberts opinion for the majority. He states, “Not all speech is of equal First Amendment importunacy, however, and where matters of purely private significance are at issue, First Amendment protections are often less rigorous… because restricting speech on purely private matters does no implicate the same constitutional concerns as limiting speech on matters of public interest: ‘There is no threat to the free and robust debate of public issues; there is no potential interference with a meaningful dialogue of ideas’; and the ‘threat of liability’ does not pose the risk of ‘a reaction of self-censorship’ on matters of public import” (Snyder v. Phelps, 2011) Thus Justice John Roberts identifies the signage used by the protestors were indeed discussing public issues such as, "political and moral conduct of the United States and its citizens, the fate of our Nation, homosexuality in the military, and scandals involving Catholic clergy” even though the signs were in poor taste and the location of the protests questionable.

During oral argument Justice Antonin Scalia brought up the question of whether or not the language the Westboro Church used could be considered “fighting words”. “Fighting words” are not a form of protected free speech. The term comes from Chaplinsky v. New Hampshire , 315 U. S. 568 (1942). During the trial of a man who had been arrested for breach of peace after swearing at a police officer, the Court unanimously decided:

“It is well understood that the right of free speech is not absolute at all times and under all circumstances. There are certain well-defined and narrowly limited classes of speech, the prevention and punishment of which has never been thought to raise any Constitutional problem. These include the lewd and obscene, the profane, the libelous, and the insulting or “fighting” words — those which by their very utterance inflict injury or tend to incite an immediate breach of the peace. It has been well observed that such utterances are no essential part of any exposition of ideas, and are of such slight social value as a step to truth that any benefit may be derived from them is clearly outweighed by the social interest in order and morality. “Resort to epithets or personal abuse is not in any proper sense communication of information or opinion safeguarded by the Constitution, and its punishment as a criminal act would raise no question under that instrument.” (Chaplinsky v. New Hampshire, 1942)

This argument was not pursued in Snyder v. Phelps, and I don’t think it should have been, and would only have been valid had the members of Westboro said things directly to Albert Snyder or his family, instead of using the royal “you”, meaning a larger group such as “all you Americans”. If the signs or statements had been made directly to the Snyder family such as “Matthew Snyder was a faggot” then the family would of easily been able to maintain the decision by the jury and the protest would not be considered protected free speech.

  1. Snyder v. Phelps, 09-751 (March 2, 2011)
  2. Hudson, D. (2003, November 5). Fighting words. Retrieved from 
  3. Chaplinsky v. New Hampshire , 315 U. S. 568 (1942)


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