Snyder v. Phelps (2011)

Summary

The Supreme Court recently handed down a decision on the controversial First Amendment case, Snyder v. Phelps (2011), involving inflammatory protest signs at the funeral of a slain American soldier. Decisions like this one test our commitment to the protection of free speech guaranteed by the First Amendment.


Student Handout (PDF)

Teacher Key

Resources

Questions

1. In Snyder v. Phelps, what are the facts of the Supreme Court case? What is the constitutional question?

2. What were the arguments on the side of Snyder? What were the arguments on the side of Phelps? How did the Court rule?

3. Chief Justice John Roberts wrote the decision and quoted the following sentence from an earlier case, Erznoznik v. City of Jacksonville(1975):

“…the Constitution does not permit government to decide which types of otherwise protected speech are sufficiently offensive to require protection for the unwilling listener or viewer.”
Do you agree with this argument? Why or why not?

4. In Chaplinksy v. New Hampshire (1941), one of the cases that Justice Alito cited in his dissenting opinion, it says:

“There are certain well defined and narrowly limited classes of speech, the prevention and punishment of which have never been thought to raise any Constitutional problem. These include the lewd and obscene, the profane, the libelous, and the insulting or “fighting” words — those which, by their very utterance, inflict injury or tend to incite an immediate breach of the peace. It has been well observed that such utterances are no essential part of any exposition of ideas, and are of such slight social value as a step to truth that any benefit that may be derived from them is clearly outweighed by the social interest in order and morality.”
Do you agree with this reasoning? Why or why not?

5. One of the key points in the case was whether the statements on the picket signs were of a private or of a public nature. Which arguments do you find to be the most persuasive? Why?

Wrap Up

How does the ruling in Snyder v. Phelps test our commitment to the protections guaranteed in the First Amendment?

Extension

The rulings of the Supreme Court have the power to expand, limit, or maintain the protection of free speech in the United States. In the following cases, was freedom of speech expanded, limited, or maintained?

  • Abrams v. United States (1919)
  • Chaplinksy v. New Hampshire (1941)
  • Cohen v. California (1960)
  • New York Times v. Sullivan (1964)
  • Brandenburg v. Ohio (1969)
  • Erznoznik v. City of Jacksonville (1975)
  • Texas v. Johnson (1989)