Snyder v. Phelps


Cite as: 562 U. S. ____ (2011)
Opinion of the Court

chose to say it, is entitled to “special protection” under the First Amendment, and that protection cannot be overcome by a jury finding that the picketing was outrageous.

For all these reasons, the jury verdict imposing tort liability on Westboro for intentional infliction of emotional distress must be set aside.


The jury also found Westboro liable for the state law torts of intrusion upon seclusion and civil conspiracy.  The Court of Appeals did not examine these torts independently of the intentional infliction of emotional distress tort. Instead, the Court of Appeals reversed the District Court wholesale, holding that the judgment wrongly “attache[d] tort liability to constitutionally protected speech.”  580 F. 3d, at 226.

Snyder argues that even assuming Westboro’s speech is entitled to First Amendment protection generally, the church is not immunized from liability for intrusion upon seclusion because Snyder was a member of a captive audience at his son’s funeral.  Brief for Petitioner 45–46. We do not agree.  In most circumstances, “the Constitution does not permit the government to decide which types of otherwise protected speech are sufficiently offensive to require protection for the unwilling listener or viewer. Rather, . . . the burden normally falls upon the viewer to avoid further bombardment of [his] sensibilities simply by averting [his] eyes.” Erznoznik v. Jacksonville, 422 U. S. 205, 210–211 (1975) (internal quotation marks omitted). As a result, “[t]he ability of government, consonant with the Constitution, to shut off discourse solely to protect others from hearing it is . . . dependent upon a showing that substantial privacy interests are being invaded in an essentially intolerable manner.” Cohen v. California, 403 U. S. 15, 21 (1971).

As a general matter, we have applied the captive audi-

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