On Wednesday the Supreme Court of the United States will hear Snyder v. Phelps, a case in which The Chicago School of Professional Psychology joined the John Marshall Law School Veterans Legal Support Center & Clinic in filing an amicus curiae ("friend of the court") brief in support of Snyder. Dr. Paul Larson, Clinical Psychology professor at TCSPP-Chicago and an attorney, wrote on behalf of The Chicago School.
The disturbing facts of the case raise the question of whether the constitutional right of free speech trumps the constitutional rights of freedom of assembly and religion and the right to privacy, as well as the issue of whether a tort such as infliction of emotional distress can limit freedom of speech.
Pastor Fred Phelps, founder of Westboro Baptist Church, a fundamentalist Christian church in Topeka, Kansas, preaches that "the modern militant homosexual movement . . . pose[s] a clear and present danger to the survival of America." The church has picketed at over 400 military funerals of troops whom, it says, "God has killed in Iraq/Afghanistan in righteous judgment against an evil nation." On March 10, 2006, the pastor and his congregants picketed at the funeral of Lance Corporal Matthew Snyder, a U.S. Marine who was killed on March 3, 2006 during active duty in Iraq. Picketers held signs that said, among other things, "God hates you," "Thank God for Dead Soldiers," and "You're going to hell."
Matthew's father, Albert Snyder, filed suit against Phelps, the Westboro Baptist Church, and members of the congregation, alleging among other things, invasion of privacy and intentional infliction of emotional distress. A jury awarded Snyder $10.9 million in damages, which was later reduced to $5 million. The Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit reversed the judgment and vacated the jury award, on the basis that-while repugnant--Phelps' speech was protected by the First Amendment. On Snyder's appeal, the Supreme Court agreed to hear the case.
The amicus brief filed by TCSPP and John Marshall in support of Snyder argues that interruption of a military funeral, which "both honors the ultimate sacrifice of the deceased and functions as the apex of the grieving process for the mourning family," can have a significantly negative impact on the family's grieving process resulting in serious psychological consequences. Military funerals, the brief argues, are particularly important because they provide closure in the wake of sudden, tragic and premature deaths. Because Snyder's family was left with the choice of leaving their loved one's funeral or bearing the offensive demonstration by Phelps and other congregants, the family was essentially captive at the funeral with no avenue of escape from the unwanted intrusion into its familial privacy. Moreover, the brief argues, extending state protection to military funerals is consistent with the country's institutionalized values and procedures reflecting "a strong national consensus that the way we treat those who die in service to our nation matters deeply."
Dr. Larson wrote the section of the brief on the emotional importance of funerals for those who have survived the death of a service member, parents, spouse, and especially children. John Marshall's staff authored the legal section arguing that attendees at a funeral are a "captive audience," which allows government to regulate the time, place or manner of speech.
The Supreme Court will hear oral arguments in the case at 10 am EST on October 6, 2010. Audio of the arguments will be on the Supreme Court's website on Friday, October 8th.