WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court on Monday agreed to decide whether the father of a Marine killed in Iraq may sue protesters who picketed his son’s funeral with signs that read “God Hates You” and “Thank God for Dead Soldiers.”
A federal appeals court dismissed the suit on First Amendment grounds and threw out a $5 million award against the protesters, who are members of Westboro Baptist Church in Topeka, Kan., and maintain that God hates homosexuality and that the death of soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan is God’s way of punishing the United States for its tolerance of it.
The fallen Marine was Lance Cpl. Matthew A. Snyder, and his funeral was held in Westminster, Md., in 2006. His father, Albert Snyder, testified at trial in 2007 that the protests continued to haunt and disturb him.
“For the rest of my life,” Mr. Snyder said, “I will remember what they did to me, and it has tarnished the memory of my son’s last hour on earth.”
He added that he became angry and tearful when he thought about the protest and that the memory of it had caused him to vomit.
The protesters complied with local laws and instructions from the police about keeping their distance. They did not know the Snyders, and they had staged similar protests at other military funerals.
Mr. Snyder’s central claim is that the protesters intentionally inflicted emotional distress on him.
In 1988, the Supreme Court ruled that the First Amendment barred the Rev. Jerry Falwell from suing Hustler Magazine for intentional infliction of emotional distress. Hustler had published a parody of an advertisement suggesting that Mr. Falwell had incestuous sex in an outhouse. (Coincidentally, Mr. Falwell expressed views not wholly different from those of the funeral protesters, saying that the nation’s attitudes toward homosexuality and abortion had played a role in the Sept. 11 attacks.)
Mr. Snyder contends that the Hustler decision should not apply to suits brought by one private person against another. In libel and other cases, the Supreme Court has limited the First Amendment protection afforded to purely private speech.
A three-judge panel of the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit, in Richmond, Va., unanimously ruled against Mr. Snyder, though the judges split 2-to-1 over the rationale. The majority said the messages on the protesters’ signs were protected under the First Amendment because they addressed matters of general interest.
“As utterly distasteful as these signs are,” Judge Robert B. King wrote for the majority, “they involve matters of public concern, including the issues of homosexuals in the military, the sex-abuse scandal within the Catholic Church, and the political and moral conduct of the United States and its citizens.”
The Supreme Court will consider the case, Snyder v. Phelps, No. 09-751, in the fall.
BACKGROUND CHECKS The court also agreed to decide whether a 2004 Bush administration antiterrorism initiative violated the privacy rights of scientists and engineers at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, a research facility operated by the California Institute of Technology under a contract with NASA.
The initiative extended the background checks required for many government jobs to contract employees like those at the laboratory. The employees sued, saying that such government investigations are needlessly intrusive and violate privacy rights.
The employees, who do not have security clearances and are not involved in classified or military activities, objected to answering questions about drug use and counseling, and to signing a form authorizing the government to collect information from schools, landlords, employers and others.
The United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, in San Francisco, ordered the background checks halted while the case went forward. The full court declined to review that decision, with several judges dissenting.
Judge Andrew J. Kleinfeld said the court’s decision was “likely to impair national security” by forbidding the government “from doing what any sensible private employer would do.”
Chief Judge Alex Kozinski urged the Supreme Court to hear the case, NASA v. Nelson, No. 09-530. He said the law in this area had turned into a turducken — a chicken stuffed into a duck that is then stuffed into a turkey.
BANKRUPTCY LAWYERS In a decision Monday, the court interpreted a 2005 bankruptcy law narrowly to avoid a First Amendment challenge. The law forbids some professionals from advising their clients “to incur more debt in contemplation of” a bankruptcy filing.
The first issue in the case was whether the law applied to lawyers, and the court, in an opinion by Justice Sonia Sotomayor, said it did. The second, harder question was whether the law violated the First Amendment in forbidding lawyers from giving some kinds of advice.
No one disputed that lawyers could be forbidden from counseling their clients to abuse the bankruptcy system by piling on debt right before filing. But there are also sensible reasons to take on additional debt in the face of possible bankruptcy.
Justice Sotomayor wrote that the law, properly read, prohibited lawyers “only from advising a debtor to incur more debt because the debtor is filing for bankruptcy, rather than for a valid purpose.”
Advice about refinancing a mortgage, buying a reliable car to get to work and paying medical bills are all outside the scope of the law, Justice Sotomayor said.
The ruling in the case, Milavetz, Gallop & Milavetz v. United States, No. 08-1119, was unanimous, though Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas did not join in all of Justice Sotomayor’s reasoning.
This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:
Correction: March 11, 2010
Because of an editing error, a photo caption on Tuesday with an article about an agreement by the Supreme Court to decide whether the father of a Marine killed in Iraq may sue protesters who carried inflammatory signs as they picketed his son’s funeral misstated, in some editions, the location of the funeral. It was Westminster, Md., not Topeka, Kan.