On Wednesday, March 2, 2011, the United States Supreme Court issued a ruling in favor of the controversial leader of the Westboro Baptist Church (Fred Phelps) in the controversial Phelps v. Snyder litigation.
As reported on this website on February 18, 2011, the linchpin of the case involved a determination of the right to free speech versus the rights of freedom of religion and freedom to peaceably assemble, as well as implicating privacy rights for the families of fallen soldiers. In its opinion, the eight-member majority led by Chief Justice John Roberts (only Justice Samuel Alito dissented) found in favor of Phelps and overruled a jury verdict in favor of the Snyder family in the amount of $5 million. The Court, being careful to distance themselves from any implication that they approved of Phelp's actions, relied on First Amendment principles and emphasized the important of protecting free speech, even when hurtful. While noting that Phelps and his followers' actions did inflict pain on the Snyder family, the court also implied that the facts of this case affected their decision primarily because the protest took place virtually out of sight of the Snyder family and attendees of Matthew Snyder's funeral and there was no indication that the protest actually interfered with the funeral.