Skip to main content, skip to search, or skip to the top of the page.

MSU College of Law



November 19, 2010


MSU Law Panel Discussion Examines Limits of Right to Free Speech

East Lansing, MI — Does the First Amendment shield protesters at a soldier’s funeral from liability for intentionally inflicting emotional distress on the family of the deceased? Michigan State University College of Law hosted a panel discussion to examine the boundaries of the Constitutional right to free speech on Thursday, November 18.

Snyder v. Phelps: Funeral Protests and the First Amendment” was sponsored by the MSU Law American Constitution Society, Military Law Society, and Triangle Bar Association. The case that was the focus of the event highlights the difficult balance between one individual’s right to free speech and another’s right to mourn privately.

In 2006, Marine Lance Corporal Matthew Snyder was killed in a non-combat related vehicle accident in Iraq. Snyder’s family filed a lawsuit against members of the Westboro Baptist Church who had picketed Corporal Snyder’s funeral, accusing the church and its founders of defamation, invasion of privacy, and intentional infliction of emotional distress.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit overturned the lower court’s $5 million judgment against the church, holding that the decision violated the First Amendment’s protection of religious expression. The Supreme Court, which heard oral arguments in the case on October 6, has not yet issued its decision.

Panelist Frank Ravitch, the Walter H. Stowers Chair in Law and Religion at MSU Law, emphasized that Westboro Baptist Church members “have a right to believe what they believe and to protest. The only question is when and where.”

Margie Phelps, the attorney who argued the church’s case before the U.S. Supreme Court and the daughter of Westboro Baptist Church founder Fred Phelps, said the Constitution was specifically designed “so mob rule could not shut up the dissenting voice.”

Calling the protesters’ words “a few words by a little church that you all love to hate,” Phelps said, “We peacefully, lawfully, quietly, at a significant distance put some words in the air that you can avert your eyes if you don’t want to see.”

Other panelists included Keli Bender, an Iraq War veteran and MSU Law student; Jay Kaplan, staff attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan’s LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) Project; and Diane Waits, the mother of Army Specialist Andrew Waits, who was killed by an improvised explosive device (IED) during combat operations in Iraq. Nancy Costello, associate clinical professor of law and director of the Great Lakes First Amendment Law Clinic at MSU Law, served as moderator.

Waits says she strongly believes the Phelps have the right to protest, despite the pain they cause to the families of fallen soldiers. “That’s what my son died for—to protect their right to free speech,” she said. “It’s all about freedom of speech, and I hope that right is never lost.”

“Big First Amendment controversies often arise from very troubling and offensive speech, and Snyder v. Phelps is the most controversial First Amendment case before the U.S. Supreme Court. As such, this is a crucial case for discussion at this or any law school,” said Joan W. Howarth, dean of MSU Law. “The diverse perspectives in the program offered a lesson on free speech that our students will never forget.”

Michigan State University College of Law is a leading institution of legal education with a long history of educating practice-ready attorneys. As one of only a few private law schools affiliated with a major research university, MSU Law offers comprehensive interdisciplinary opportunities combined with a personalized legal education. After 100 years as a private and independent institution, the affiliation with MSU has put the Law College on an upward trajectory of national and international reputation and reach. MSU Law professors are gifted teachers and distinguished scholars, its curriculum is rigorous and challenging, and its facility is equipped with the latest resources—all affirming MSU Law's commitment to educating 21st-century lawyers.


320 Law College Building
East Lansing, MI 48824

Skip to main content, skip to search, or skip to the top of the page.