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EXPERT AVAILABLE: Supreme Court Rules Correctly on Snyder v. Phelps, MU Expert Says

March 03, 2011

Story Contact(s):
Nathan Hurst, hurstn@missouri.edu, 573-882-6217

The views and opinions expressed in this “for expert comment” release are based on research and/or opinions of the researcher(s) and/or faculty member(s) and do not reflect the University’s official stance.

Christina Wells, the Enoch H. Crowder professor of law at the University of Missouri School of Law.

Christina Wells, the Enoch H. Crowder professor of law at the University of Missouri School of Law.

COLUMBIA, Mo. – The U.S. Supreme Court ruled Wednesday in favor of Westboro Baptist Church protestors, saying they are within their First Amendment rights to protest at funerals. Christina Wells, the Enoch H. Crowder professor of law at the University of Missouri School of Law and a leading expert on funeral protests and freedom of speech cases, says there was no evidence of a physical disruption by the protesters, so the free speech rights had to be upheld.

“The mere dislike of a group of people and what they are doing and saying is not enough to limit free speech,” Wells said. “On the facts associated with the Snyder case, there is really no way you can regulate this kind of speech consistent with First Amendment principles, no matter how hateful it is.”

The Snyder v. Phelps case stems from a protest conducted by mem`bers of Westboro Baptist Church, led by pastor Fred Phelps, during funeral services for an American soldier who died in Iraq. The protesters stood on public property near the location of the services and spread an antigay message that included the belief that God was punishing America for the tolerance of homosexuals by killing soldiers. Snyder, the plaintiff and father of the slain soldier, filed suit seeking damages for the intentional infliction of emotional distress and invasion of privacy due to his exposure to the Phelps’ protest during the funeral.

Wells believes that this court ruling shows a new willingness to clarify the importance of protecting debate on matters of public concern even if they cause emotional distress to private individuals. She says a critical aspect of the Court’s decision involved the fact that the protesters addressed a matter of public concern. Thus, their right to free speech cannot be hindered as long as they did not engage in actions that physically disrupted the funeral or harassed mourners. According to Wells, the 8-1 decision in the Supreme Court demonstrates the depth of the Court’s belief on this issue.

“Most offensive speech decisions are pretty evenly split, but the lopsided nature of this decision suggests that the court is concerned about potential abuse of intentional infliction of emotional distress as a cause of action for attacking free speech,” Wells said. “However, they clearly leave open the possibility of upholding time, place and manner restrictions. I believe this funeral protest statute issue will be revisited eventually.”

Wells has published an article on the Snyder v. Phelps case in the California Law review and is regarded as one of the top experts on the subject. To view the article visit the following link: http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=1649632

Wells has worked professionally as an associate at Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom in Chicago and as an associate at Heller, Ehrman, White & McAuliffe in Los Angeles. She has been on the University of Missouri School of Law faculty since 1993.

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