Snyder v. Phelps

NOTE: The information and commentary contained in this database entry are based on court filings and other informational sources that may contain unproven allegations made by the parties. The truthfulness and accuracy of such information is likely to be in dispute. Information contained in this entry is current as of the last event mentioned in the "Description" section below; additional proceedings might have taken place in this matter since this event.


Threat Type: 









Dismissed (partial)
Dismissed (total)
Verdict (plaintiff)

Verdict or Settlement Amount: 

The Westboro Baptist Church is a fundamentalist Christian church that contends that God kills soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan as punishment for America'stolerance of homosexuality and for the presence of gays in the U.S. military. The church operates a number of... read full description

Party Receiving Legal Threat: 

Fred W. Phelps, Sr.; Westboro Baptist Church, Inc.; Rebekah Phelps-Davis; Shirley Phelps-Roper; John Does; Jane Does

Type of Party: 


Type of Party: 


Location of Party: 

  • Pennsylvania

Location of Party: 

  • Kansas

Legal Counsel: 

Jonathan L. Katz

The Westboro Baptist Church is a fundamentalist Christian church that contends that God kills soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan as punishment for America'stolerance of homosexuality and for the presence of gays in the U.S. military. The church operates a number of websites, including, on which it disseminates its rabidly anti-homosexual views. The church has gained notoriety for staging protests at the funerals of U.S. soldiers in order to draw attention to its message.

Albert Snyder's son, Lance Corporal Matthew Snyder, was a U.S. Marinewho was killed on March 3, 2006 during active service in Iraq. His bodywas returned to the United States, and his family held a funeral forhim on March 10, 2006 in Westminster, Maryland.

Westboro Baptist Church pastor and founder Fred Phelps and members of his congregation picketed Matthew's funeral, holding signs expressing anti-gay, anti-American, and anti-Catholic slogans, including "God hates you" and "You're going to hell."

Westboro Baptist Church also posted an essay on its website entitled "The Burden of Marine Lance Cpl. Matthew A. Snyder." In the essay, statements indicated that Albert and his wife “raised [Matthew] for the devil,” “RIPPED that body apart and taught Matthew to defy his Creator, to divorce, and to commit adultery,” “taught him how to support the largest pedophile machine in the history of the entire world, the Roman Catholic monstrosity,” and “taught Matthew to be an idolator.”

On June 5, 2006, Snyder filed a lawsuit in federal court in Maryland against Westboro Baptist, Fred Phelps, and anonymous members of the church congregation. The complaint included claims for defamation, two counts of invasion of privacy (intrusion on seclusion and publicity given to private life), and intentional infliction of emotional distress.

On September 18, 2006, the defendants filed a motion to dismiss the complaint on jurisdictional and substantive grounds. The Court denied the motion on October 30, 2006.

Snyder's amended complaint, filed February 23, 2007, named Phelps's two daughters, Rebekah Phelps-Davis and Shirley Phelps-Roper, as additional defendants. Two months later, Phelps-Davis and Phelps-Roper filed a motion to dismiss and for summary judgment on grounds similar to their father's September 2006 motion. The Court denied this motion in June 2007.

Although the record is not entirely clear, it appears that the defendants renewed their motions for summary judgment, and, on October 15, 2007, the Court granted summary judgment for the defendants on the defamation claim and the invasion of privacy claim based on publication of private facts. The court announced its decision in open court, commenting that “These comments — as extreme as they may be — they are taken in termsof religious expression. This is not the type of language that one is going to assume is meant as a statement of fact.” The decision was memorialized in an October 16, 2007 order.

The jury trail comenced on October 22, 2007 to hear the remaining counts of invasion of privacy (intrusion upon seclusion) and intentional infliction of emotional distress. On October 31, 2007 the jury handed down a $10.9 million verdict against the defendants. This figure is made up of $2.9 million in compensatory damages, $6 million in punitive damages for invasion of privacy, and $2 million in punitive damages for causing emotional distress. After the verdict, Fred Phelps indicated his intent to appeal to the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals.

The defendants' practice of protesting at the funerals of fallen soldiers is infamous, and Congress passed a federal statute on May 29, 2006 that prohibits protests of the sort involved in this case. The Kansas legislature approved a similar prohibition in April 2007.


2/4/2008 - Judge Bennett granted in part Defendants' motion for remittitur and cut the jury award down to $5 million, applying both federal constitutional and state common law standards. The courtleft the jury's compensatory damage award of$2.9 million intact but reduced the total punitive damages to $2.1million.

2/11/2008 - Phelps filed statement of intent to appeal.

9/24/2009 - The Fourth Circuit issued an opinion reversing the judgment of the district court and vacating the jury award.  The appellate court found the Phelps' speech (both website and picketing) protected by the First Amendment.

3/02/2011 - The U.S. Supreme Court affirmed the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals.  Chief Justice Roberts, writing for the majority, held that a suit for intentional infliction of emotional distress must fail  because Phelps' speech was on a matter of public concern.  He held that the context of a funeral did not transform the context of the speech from public to private, because the Westboro Baptist Church picketed on public land.

The Court also addressed liability under the captive audience theory. If Snyder were seen as a captive audience at his son's funeral, he could possibly recover from the harmful effects of the speech because he would be an unwilling listener. However, the Court stressed that the picketers didn't interrupt the funeral, shout profanities, or behave "unruly." Snyder couldn't see any of the signs during the funeral and in fact didn't know what they said until after the funeral was over.

The Court left open whether time, place or manner restrictions restricting picketing at funerals would violate the First Amendment.


Content Type: 

  • Text

Publication Medium: 


Subject Area: 

  • Defamation
  • Intrusion
  • Publication of Private Facts
Court Information & Documents


  • Maryland

Source of Law: 

  • Maryland

Court Name: 

United States District Court for the District of Maryland, United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit

Court Type: 


Case Number: 

1:06-cv-1389-RDB (trial), 08-1026 (appeals)

Relevant Documents: