Snyder v. Phelps, 562 U.S. 443 (Mar. 2, 2011)

The First Amendment shields members of a church from tort liability for picketing near a soldier’s funeral. A jury held members of the Westboro Baptist Church liable for millions of dollars in damages for picketing near a soldier’s funeral service. The picket signs reflected the church’s view that the United States is overly tolerant of sin and that God kills American soldiers as punishment. The picketing occurred in Maryland. Although that state now has a criminal statute in effect restricting picketing at funerals, the statute was not in effect at the time the conduct at issue arose. Noting that statute and that other jurisdictions have enacted similar provisions, the Court stated: “To the extent these laws are content neutral, they raise very different questions from the tort verdict at issue in this case. Maryland’s law, however, was not in effect at the time of the events at issue here, so we have no occasion to consider how it might apply to facts such as those before us, or whether it or other similar regulations are constitutional.” Slip Op. at 11. [Author’s note: In North Carolina, G.S. 14‑288.4(a)(8), criminalizes disorderly conduct at funerals, including military funerals. In a prosecution for conduct prohibited by that statute, the issue that the U.S. Supreme Court did not have occasion to address may be presented for decision].