Sean Summers and the clash between free speech and basic human needs

When Rev. Fred Phelps and members of his Westboro Baptist Church picketed a U.S. Marine's funeral in Maryland in 2006, with signs reading, "You're going to hell," "Thank God for dead soldiers," and "America is doomed," it didn't take long for the story to spread across the nation. The father of the soldier, Albert Snyder, who lives in York, Pennsylvania, sued, and today arguments for Snyder v. Phelps will be presented in front of the U.S. Supreme Court, which is tasked with deciding whether Phelps can claim freedom of speech protections for his actions.

"It's obviously [an] important [case] because it's a First Amendment-type issue and all of us hold the First Amendment very near and dear to our hearts," the counsel of record for Snyder, Sean E. Summers of Barley Snyder of York, Pennsylvania, told Super Lawyers last Friday. "But on the other hand, it also deals with the dignity and respect that every human being should have when they're burying a loved one at a funeral.

In the case, Snyder claims, among other things, intentional infliction of emotional distress and invasion of privacy. While Snyder was successful in a jury trial, which granted him a total of $2.9 million in compensatory damages and $8 million in punitive damages, the Fourth Circuit Court reversed the decision.

"In some respects it's sort of a clash between free speech and just basic human needs, human dignity and the respect that we should have for each other," Summers says. "And those two, at best, have collided in this case. From our position, it's not really about First Amendment issues because this is nothing more than harassment. If it happened in the workplace and it dealt with sexual issues, we'd call it sexual harassment and no one would say the First Amendment bars this just because of speech. This happens to be harassment at a funeral as opposed to a different context."