The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press and 21 media organizations filed a friend-of-the-court brief this week asking the U.S. Supreme Court to affirm a Fourth Circuit ruling that cited the First Amendment in reversing a judgment in favor of a fallen soldier’s father who had sued funeral protesters.
The case, Snyder v. Phelps, began after the Westboro Baptist Church organized a protest at the funeral of U.S. Marine Matthew Snyder, who was killed in the line of duty. The group complied with local regulations, but Albert Snyder field a lawsuit based on the display of signs such as “Thank God for Dead Soldiers,” “God Hates Fags,” and “You’re Going to Hell,” and the publication of an Internet diatribe that included statements about Matthew Snyder.
The U.S. District Court in Maryland ruled that the conduct constituted intentional infliction of emotional distress, invasion of privacy by intrusion upon seclusion and conspiracy. TheU.S. Court of Appeals (4th Cir.) reversed, finding that the speech involved a matter of public concern.
The organizations argued that regardless of the nature of the speech at issue in this case, the standard adopted by the federal judge at trial would impose severe liability for controversial speech about matters of public concern.
The media groups asked the Supreme Court to affirm the appellate court’s decision, arguing that while “most reasonable people would consider the funeral protests conducted by members of the Westboro Baptist Church to be inexplicable and hateful,” the court would not be able to establish a workable standard that would both protect speech interests yet exclude the Westboro protesters from First Amendment protection.
The brief also argued that the case may have important constitutional ramifications for reporters, as the media has no protection above that of the average speaker: “A ruling to the contrary in this case would have far-reaching effects on the media and other speakers, because the Westboro Baptist Church protests are not unique in any constitutionally meaningful sense.”
The brief was submitted by the Reporters Committee, ALM Media, LLC, The American Society of News Editors, The Associated Press, The Association of American Publishers, Inc., Bloomberg L.P., The Citizen Media Law Project, Dow Jones & Company, Inc., The E.W. Scripps Company, The First Amendment Coalition, The First Amendment Project, The Hearst Corporation, The Media Institute, The National Press Club, The National Press Photographers Association, The New York Times Company, Newspaper Association of America, The Newspaper Guild – CWA, NPR, Inc., The Radio Television Digital News Association, The Society of Professional Journalists, and Tribune Company.
The brief was written by a team of lawyers led by Robert Corn-Revere of Davis Wright Tremaine LLP in Washington, D.C.
The Reporters Committee regularly files friend-of-the-court briefs and its attorneys represent journalists and news organizations pro bono in court cases that involve First Amendment freedoms, the newsgathering rights of journalists and access to public information. Stay up-to-date on our work by signing up for our monthly newsletter and following us on Twitter or Instagram.