Snyder v. Phelps


Opinion of the Court

principle that debate on public issues should be uninhibited, robust, and wide-open.” New York Times Co. v. Sullivan, 376 U. S. 254, 270 (1964).  That is because “speech concerning public affairs is more than self-expression; it is the essence of self-government.”  Garrison v. Louisiana, 379 U. S. 64, 74–75 (1964).  Accordingly, “speech on public issues occupies the highest rung of the hierarchy of First Amendment values, and is entitled to special protection.” Connick v. Myers, 461 U. S. 138, 145 (1983) (internal quotation marks omitted). 

“ ‘[N]ot all speech is of equal First Amendment importance,’ ” however, and where matters of purely private significance are at issue, First Amendment protections are often less rigorous. Hustler, supra, at 56 (quoting Dun & Bradstreet, supra, at 758); see Connick, supra, at 145–147. That is because restricting speech on purely private matters does not implicate the same constitutional concerns as limiting speech on matters of public interest: “[T]here 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. Dun & Bradstreet, supra, at 760 (internal quotation marks omitted).

We noted a short time ago, in considering whether public employee speech addressed a matter of public concern, that “the boundaries of the public concern test are not well defined.” San Diego v. Roe, 543 U. S. 77, 83 (2004) (per curiam). Although that remains true today, we have articulated some guiding principles, principles that accord broad protection to speech to ensure that courts themselves do not become inadvertent censors.

Speech deals with matters of public concern when it can “be fairly considered as relating to any matter of political, social, or other concern to the community,” Connick, supra, at 146, or when it “is a subject of legitimate news

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