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  • Snyder v. Phelps
  • Texas v. Johnson
  • What is Your Opinion?

Summary of a First Amendment Landmark Supreme Court case:
Snyder v. Phelps 131 S. Ct. 1207 (2011)

FACTS:

Fred Phelps and his followers at the Westboro Baptist Church believe that God punishes the United States for its tolerance of homosexuality, particularly within the military. To demonstrate their beliefs, Phelps and his followers often picket at military funerals.

Albert Snyder's son, Lance Corporal Matthew Snyder, was killed in the line of duty in Iraq in 2006. Westboro picketed Matthew Snyder's funeral displaying signs that stated, for instance, "God Hates the USA/Thank God for 9/11," "Thank God for Dead Soldiers," and "Don't Pray for the USA." The church notified local authorities in advance that they intended to picket the funeral, staged the picket on public land adjacent to a public street, and complied with all police instructions. Church members also sang hymns and recited Bible verses.

Although Albert Snyder could see the tops of the picket signs on the day of the funeral, he could not read what was written on them and it was not until he saw a news story about the funeral and the picketing that he became aware of the church's message. Snyder sued Phelps and the church claiming, among other things, that their actions caused him severe emotional distress. In defense, Phelps argued that his speech (the picketing and the signs) was protected under the Free Speech Clause of the First Amendment to the Constitution.

ISSUE:

Whether Westboro's signs and comments while picketing Matthew Snyder's funeral related to matters of public concern and were, thus, entitled to greater protection under the Free Speech Clause of the First Amendment?

RULING:

Yes.

REASONING:

(Chief Justice Roberts) The Supreme Court's holding turned largely on its determination that the church was speaking on "matters of public concern" as opposed to "matters of purely private significance." The Court explained that "[s]peech 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' or when it 'is a subject of general interest and of value and concern to the public.'" Speech on public issues is entitled to special protection under the First Amendment because it serves the "the principle that debate on public issues should be uninhibited, robust, and wide-open."

To determine whether the speech dealt with matters of public concern, the Court examined the "content, form, and context" of the speech. The court noted that none of these factors would determine the outcome of the case and that a court must evaluate all the circumstances of the speech, "including what was said, where it was said, and how it was said."

Even though some of the picket signs arguably targeted only the Snyder family, most of them addressed issues regarding the moral conduct of the U.S., the fate of the U.S., and homosexuality in the military. As such, the "overall thrust and dominant theme" of the speech related to broader public issues. Furthermore, the church was picketing on public land adjacent to a public street. Finally, there was no pre-existing relationship between Westboro's speech and Snyder that might suggest that the speech on public matters was intended to mask an attack on Snyder over a private matter. Therefore, the Court held that the Phelps and his followers were "speaking" on matters of public concern on public property and thus, were entitled to protection under the First Amendment.

DISSENT:

(Alito, J.) Justice Alito argued that the national commitment to free and open debate is not a license for the vicious verbal assault that occurred in this case. He noted that "the First Amendment does not shield utterances that form 'no essential part of any exposition of ideas, and are of such slight social value as a step to truth that any benefit that may be derived from them is clearly outweighed by the social interest in order and morality.'" Accordingly, he asserts that, in light of the grave injury inflicted by the statements in this case, the First Amendment should not interfere with recovery for tort damages.

Summary of a First Amendment Landmark Supreme Court case:
Texas v. Johnson 491 U.S. 397 (1989)

FACTS:

While the Republican National Convention was taking place in Dallas in 1984, Gregory Lee Johnson participated in a political demonstration dubbed the "Republican War Chest Tour." The purpose of the demonstration was to protest the policies of the Reagan administration and of certain Dallas-based corporations.

The demonstrators marched through streets, chanted political slogans, and stopped at several corporate locations to stage "die-ins" intended to dramatize the consequences of nuclear war. At one point, Johnson accepted an American flag handed to him by a fellow protestor who had taken it from a flagpole outside one of the targeted buildings.

The demonstration ended in front of Dallas City Hall, where Johnson unfurled the American flag, doused it with kerosene, and set it on fire. While the flag burned, the protestors chanted: "America, the red, white, and blue, we spit on you." No one was physically injured or threatened with injury, though several witnesses testified that they had been seriously offended by the flag burning.

Johnson was arrested and charged with violating a Texas statute that prevented the desecration of a venerated object, including the American flag, if the person knows it will seriously offend others. A Texas court tried and convicted Johnson. He appealed, arguing that his actions were "symbolic speech" protected by the First Amendment. The Supreme Court agreed to hear his case.

ISSUE:

Whether flag burning constitutes "symbolic speech" protected by the First Amendment.

RULING:

Yes.

REASONING:

(Brennan, J.) The majority of the Court, agreed with Johnson and held that flag burning constitutes a form of "symbolic speech" that is protected by the First Amendment. "A law directed at the communicative nature of conduct must, like a law directed at speech itself, be justified by the substantial showing of need that the First Amendment requires."

The majority concluded that the Texas law impermissibly discriminated upon viewpoint. The Court noted, "If there is a bedrock principle underlying the First Amendment, it is that the government may not prohibit the expression of an idea simply because society finds the idea itself offensive or disagreeable." For example, although the law punished actions, such as flag burning, that might arouse anger in others, it specifically exempted from prosecution actions that were respectful of venerated objects, e.g., burning and burying a worn-out flag. The majority said that the government could not discriminate in this manner based solely upon what message was communicated.

Finally, the Court concluded that Texas' interest in preventing breaches of the peace did not support Johnson's conviction because the conduct at issue did not threaten to disturb the peace. Moreover, Texas' interest in preserving the flag as a symbol of nationhood and national unity did not justify Johnson's criminal conviction for engaging in political expression.

DISSENT:

(Chief Justice Rehnquist) Writing for the dissent, Chief Justice Rehnquist recounted the historic role the flag has played and asserted that it is a visible symbol embodying the nation that represents neither a particular political party nor a particular political philosophy. The dissent further contended that the public burning of the American flag by Johnson was no essential part of any exposition of ideas and had a tendency to incite a breach of the peace. Therefore, because the American flag has occupied a unique position as the symbol of the nation, that uniqueness justifies a governmental prohibition against flag burning.

(Stevens, J.) Justice Stevens argued that the flag's unique status as a symbol of freedom, equal opportunity, religious tolerance, and good will for others who share such operations supports a prohibition on the desecration of the American flag in the same way that the public is prohibited from spray painting the Washington Monument or the Lincoln Memorial.

What is Your Opinion?

  • Why might it be important for the rule of law to protect those who express ideas that the majority may find offensive?

     

     

  • Should symbolic speech receive the same First Amendment protections as other forms of speech?

     

     

  • Are there times when the government should be able to limit speech? If so, under what circumstances and why?

     

     

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