Snyder v. Phelps Applied to Student Loan Flash Mobs
The Our Fair Share (OFS) movement is a national initiative that has come to prominence due to a wave of high-profile demonstrations, primarily by college students and recent graduates. The movement, inspired by other grassroots protests, seeks to raise awareness of two issues: the enormous financial burden that student loans put on students; and the lack of employment opportunities for recent college graduates.
John Smith is a recent honors graduate with a degree in philosophy. However, he has been unable to find a job in the 18 months since graduation. Smith did not pay rent for six months and was evicted from his apartment in New York City. As a result, he moved home to New Jersey to live with his parents. Smith was inspired by the OFS movement and became involved in many of the protests. Having leadership experience in student government and sports, Smith immediately took a vocal role in the protests. He instigated flash mobs, and often was at the forefront of marches leading fellow protestors in chants. Smith stood out in the crowd and local media coverage soon made him the face of the OFS movement.
Ms. Laura Anderson was the landlord in New York who evicted John Smith from the apartment building where she also lived. She frequently made a point of the fact that she had survived the Great Depression and that she opposes Our Fair Share. At a Thanksgiving gathering at her home, Ms. Anderson made an impassioned speech at the dinner table, which her nephew filmed with his phone. She held her trembling chihuahua in her arms as she scolded the protestors for being lazy, spoiled children who have a false sense of entitlement and are unwilling to work hard to make their own way in the world. She also expressed her frustration with the disorder caused by the protests and flash mobs, arguing that even if the protestors have a right to express their views, they had no right to interfere with people who are going about their own business and trying to make a living.
Ms. Anderson specifically referenced John Smith's recent eviction, mentioning him by name. Frequently looking directly at the camera, as her dog anxiously licked her face, she relayed that when Smith was attempting to negotiate a payment plan with her, he said he had no intention of repaying his student loan debts because the country owed him an education. He also said that he had maxed out his credit cards to cover his living expenses. Ms. Anderson reported that, since Smith did not leave a forwarding address, she had intercepted numerous letters from what appeared to be collection agencies.
A few days later, Ms. Anderson's nephew posted the video of his aunt's speech on the Internet. Because of Ms. Anderson's rather quirky manner of delivery as she held her nervous dog, and Smith's prominent role in the protests, the video quickly went viral and was picked up by local and national news stations.
Smith was devastated that his personal financial situation was receiving such widespread attention and criticism. He became severely depressed and manifested both physical and psychological symptoms for which he sought treatment. He continues to be treated for depression, and his doctors anticipate that he will require many more years of counseling.
Smith is suing Ms. Anderson for intentional infliction of emotional distress based upon the statements made in the video. He alleges that damages exceed $75,000. Ms. Anderson asserts that she is shielded from liability because her speech was a matter of public concern under the First Amendment.