Thursday, October 7, 2010

Snyder v Phelps, on protests at funerals: one of two torts cases that dominate the discussion at the Supreme Court

Two torts cases were the center of attention yesterday at the Supreme Court. The Court heard oral arguments on Snyder v. Phelps and Connick v. Thompson. Snyder captured most of the attention, but I think Connick is just as interesting. I will post a separate comment on Connick shortly. Snyder asks whether the First Amendment allows the family of an American soldier, killed in Iraq in 2006, to recover damages for intrusion upon seclusion and intentional infliction of emotional distress from members of the Westboro Baptist Church who routinely demonstrate at funerals and other events to promote their message that God is punishing the United States for its acceptance of homosexuality using their now well known slogan "Thank God for Dead Soldiers." Putting aside the irrational and incoherent logic of the argument that there is some connection between war, soldiers' death and homosexuality, the case presents a serious legal issue. According to several accounts, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg at one point asked "This is a case about exploiting a private family's grief and the question is: Why should the First Amendment tolerate exploiting this Marine's family?" The answer, of course, is that the First Amendment exists precisely to protect the right to express unpopular views. If we only protected ideas everyone agreed with, freedom of expression would have no meaning. But the case is not that simple. Another key issue is whether the plaintiffs are to be considered "public figures." If so, they have to meet a much higher standard to meet in order to support their claim. For a debate on the case featuring Vikram Amar, law professor, U.C. Davis, Christina E. Wells, law professor, University of Missouri and William Rich, law professor, Washburn University go to The New York Times' Room for Debate. For coverage of the case go to, The Wall Street Journal law blog, and SCOTUS Blog which also has a more recent "round-up" of links on the case here and a thoughtful comment here. For all materials, briefs, and other legal documents on the case go to SCOTUS Blog. For the actual transcrips of the oral argument go here. These are only a few of many more links to more information about the case you can find out there! Finally, here are two videos on the case. The first one is the report from PBS' NewsHour. The scond is an interview with a journalist from the National Law Journal who was present at the oral argument:

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