Snyder v. Phelps


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

We granted certiorari. 559 U. S. ___ (2010).


To succeed on a claim for intentional infliction of emotional distress in Maryland, a plaintiff must demonstrate that the defendant intentionally or recklessly engaged in extreme and outrageous conduct that caused the plaintiff to suffer severe emotional distress. See Harris v. Jones, 281 Md. 560, 565–566, 380 A. 2d 611, 614 (1977).  The Free Speech Clause of the First Amendment—“Congress shall make no law . . . abridging the freedom of speech”— can serve as a defense in state tort suits, including suits for intentional infliction of emotional distress. See, e.g., Hustler Magazine, Inc. v. Falwell, 485 U. S. 46, 50–51 (1988).3

Whether the First Amendment prohibits holding Westboro liable for its speech in this case turns largely on whether that speech is of public or private concern, as determined by all the circumstances of the case.  “[S]peech on ‘matters of public concern’ . . . is ‘at the heart of the First Amendment’s protection.’ ”  Dun & Bradstreet, Inc. v. Greenmoss Builders, Inc., 472 U. S. 749, 758–759 (1985) (opinion of Powell, J.) (quoting First Nat. Bank of Boston v. Bellotti, 435 U. S. 765, 776 (1978)).  The First Amendment reflects “a profound national commitment to the

on any of his tort claims.  580 F. 3d, at 227 (opinion of Shedd, J.).  The Court of Appeals majority determined that the picketers had “voluntarily waived” any such contention on appeal. Id., at 216.  Like the court below, we proceed on the unexamined premise that respondents’ speech was tortious.

3 The dissent attempts to draw parallels between this case and hypothetical cases involving defamation or fighting words.  Post, at 10–11 (opinion of ALITO, J.).  But, as the court below noted, there is “no suggestion that the speech at issue falls within one of the categorical exclusions from First Amendment protection, such as those for obscenity or ‘fighting words.’ ”  580 F. 3d, at 218, n. 12; see United States v. Stevens, 559 U. S. ___ , ___ (2010) (slip op., at 5).

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