Snyder v. Phelps (Dissenting opinion)


ALITO, J., dissenting

strong opinions on certain moral, religious, and political issues, and the First Amendment ensures that they have almost limitless opportunities to express their views. They may write and distribute books, articles, and other texts; they may create and disseminate video and audio recordings; they may circulate petitions; they may speak to individuals and groups in public forums and in any private venue that wishes to accommodate them; they may picket peacefully in countless locations; they may appear on television and speak on the radio; they may post messages on the Internet and send out e-mails.  And they may express their views in terms that are “uninhibited,” “vehement,” and “caustic.”  New York Times Co. v. Sullivan, 376 U. S. 254, 270 (1964).

It does not follow, however, that they may intentionally inflict severe emotional injury on private persons at a time of intense emotional sensitivity by launching vicious verbal attacks that make no contribution to public debate.  To protect against such injury, “most if not all jurisdictions” permit recovery in tort for the intentional infliction of emotional distress (or IIED).  Hustler Magazine, Inc. v. Falwell, 485 U. S. 46, 53 (1988).

This is a very narrow tort with requirements that “are rigorous, and difficult to satisfy.” W. Keeton, D. Dobbs, R. Keeton, & D. Owen, Prosser and Keeton on Law of Torts §12, p. 61 (5th ed. 1984). To recover, a plaintiff must show that the conduct at issue caused harm that was truly severe. See Figueiredo-Torres v. Nickel, 321 Md. 642, 653, 584 A. 2d 69, 75 (1991) (“[R]ecovery will be meted out sparingly, its balm reserved for those wounds that are truly severe and incapable of healing themselves” (internal quotation marks omitted)); Harris v. Jones, 281 Md. 560, 571, 380 A. 2d 611, 616 (1977) (the distress must be “ ‘so severe that no reasonable man could be expected to endure it’ ” (quoting Restatement (Second) of Torts §46, Comment j (1963–1964))).

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