Snyder v. Phelps


Opinion of the Court

because Westboro believes that God is killing American soldiers as punishment for the Nation’s sinful policies.

Westboro’s choice to convey its views in conjunction with Matthew Snyder’s funeral made the expression of those views particularly hurtful to many, especially to Matthew’s father.  The record makes clear that the applicable legal term—“emotional distress”—fails to capture fully the anguish Westboro’s choice added to Mr. Snyder’s already incalculable grief. But Westboro conducted its picketing peacefully on matters of public concern at a public place adjacent to a public street.  Such space occupies a “special position in terms of First Amendment protection.”  United States v. Grace, 461 U. S. 171, 180 (1983).  “[W]e have repeatedly referred to public streets as the archetype of a traditional public forum,” noting that “ ‘[t]ime out of mind’ public streets and sidewalks have been used for public assembly and debate.”  Frisby v. Schultz, 487 U. S. 474, 480 (1988).4

That said, “[e]ven protected speech is not equally permissible in all places and at all times.”  Id., at 479 (quoting Cornelius v. NAACP Legal Defense & Ed. Fund, Inc., 473 U. S. 788, 799 (1985)).  Westboro’s choice of where and when to conduct its picketing is not beyond the Government’s regulatory reach—it is “subject to reasonable time, place, or manner restrictions” that are consistent with the standards announced in this Court’s precedents.  Clark v. Community for Creative Non-Violence, 468 U. S. 288, 293 (1984). Maryland now has a law imposing restrictions on funeral picketing, Md. Crim. Law Code Ann. §10–205
4 The dissent is wrong to suggest that the Court considers a public street “a free-fire zone in which otherwise actionable verbal attacks are shielded from liability.”  Post, at 10–11.  The fact that Westboro conducted its picketing adjacent to a public street does not insulate the speech from liability, but instead heightens concerns that what is at issue is an effort to communicate to the public the church’s views on matters of public concern.  That is why our precedents so clearly recognize the special significance of this traditional public forum.

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