The Catholic University of America

 

 

Federalist Society Sponsors Moot Court Session
for Upcoming Supreme Court Free Speech Case

 

The attorney representing the plaintiffs in a controversial free speech case that will be heard by the United States Supreme Court in early October got some practice in at the Columbus School of Law on Sept. 23rd.
 
At the invitation of the law school’s Federalist Society, Professors Robert Destro, Mark Rienzi and Roger Hartley conducted a mooting session for Sean Summers, the attorney who will argue for Albert Snyder in the upcoming case Snyder v. Phelps.

The case began its circuitous route through the court system in 2006. Lance Corporal Matthew Snyder, a U.S. Marine who was killed during active service in Iraq, was buried in March of that year in Westminster, Md.
 
His funeral service was loudly picketed by members of the fundamentalist Westboro Baptist Church and its founder, Fred Phelps. The group had already earned a notorious national reputation by contending that God kills soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan as punishment for America's tolerance of homosexuality and for the presence of gays in the U.S. military.
 
                              
 
From a distance of 1,000 feet, church members picketed Phelps’ funeral, holding signs expressing anti-gay, anti-American and anti-Catholic slogans, including "God hates you." 
 
Lower courts have split on the counts in the lawsuit originally filed against the church by Phelps’ father, Albert. That complaint presented claims for defamation, invasion of privacy and intentional infliction of emotional distress.
 
A federal jury in Baltimore awarded damages totaling almost $11 million to the Snyder family. The entire amount was vacated on appeal to the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals, which found that Phelps' speech (both website and picketing) was protected by the First Amendment.
 
The high court must now decide the boundaries of the First Amendment as applied to the picketing and protesting of military funerals.
 

 
The CUA law professors, standing in as Supreme Court justices for the practice moot, tried their best to give attorney Summers a preview of how the high court will question him and the merits of his case.
 
Their questions were skeptical in tone: How does this differ from protestors at abortion clinics? Would there have been a problem if the signs said “You’re going to heaven?” Does intentional disruption of a funeral make the tort complete, or is the content of the picketing signs a factor? 

The questions were meant to be difficult, and they provided Summers with a realistic picture of how things may unfold before the Supreme Court on Oct. 6th.
 
Summers, a former prosecutor with the U. S. Army JAG Corps, is now with the Pennsylvania law firm of Barley Snyder LLC.