LIONEL PODCAST: Why SCOTUS Was Absolutely Correct In The Westboro Case. And Why Fred Phelps Is Still A Jerk.

The Supremes ruled correctly (at least eight of them) in Snyder v. Phelps in affirming a lower court’s dismissal of a $5 million judgment against Pastor Fred Phelps and his Westboro Baptist Church. Albert Snyder brought a cause of action for intentional infliction of emotional distress for damages sustained by virtue of his demonstration at his son’s funeral. [See infra.]

“Simply put, the church members had the right to be where they were,” the decision notes. “Westboro alerted local authorities to its funeral protest and fully complied with police guidance on where the picketing could be staged. The picketing was conducted under police supervision some 1,000 feet from the church, out of the sight of those at the church. The protest was not unruly; there was no shouting, profanity, or violence.

“The record confirms that any distress occasioned by Westboro’s picketing turned on the content and viewpoint of the message conveyed, rather than any interference with the funeral itself,” Chief Justice Roberts continued. “A group of parishioners standing at the very spot where Westboro stood, holding signs that said ‘God bless America’ and ‘God loves you,’ would not have been subjected to liability. It was what Westboro said that exposed it to tort damages.

“Given that Westboro’s speech was at a public place on a matter of public concern, that speech is entitled to ‘special protection’ under the First Amendment,” the decision states. “Such speech cannot be restricted simply because it is upsetting or arouses contempt.” [See also Courthouse News Service and NYT.]

Let me explain. My hoarse voice notwithstanding.

  1. I cannot agree. This decision by the Supremes effectively nullifies the long-standing cause of action for Intentional Infliction of Emotional Distress.

    The crux of a case for the tort, Intentional Infliction of Emotional Distress, is that it is INTENTIONAL. You are intentionally engaging in bad conduct to purposefully hurt, emotionally and otherwise, someone else. Isn’t that what the protesters were trying to do?

    The outcome here is correct only because, in this case, the fact that the father couldn’t see the protesters and only learned about it much later speaks to the fact that, while he may have had a case for tortuous conduct, he had no damages.

    Cases are liability + damages. You need both. There was liability here but no damages.

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