Jury Discretion, Viewpoint Discrimination, and the Size of the Snyder v. Phelps Compensatory Damages Award

The jury awarded $2.9 million in compensatory damages to the plaintiff in Snyder v. Phelps. (It also awarded $8 million in punitive damages, which the judge reduced to $2.1 million.)

Now I stress again that the speech here was extremely offensive (and, in my view, entirely unjustified); and of course the plaintiff, being a grieving parent, was especially emotionally vulnerable. Yet I would think that even a grieving father wouldn’t be that damaged by speech that (1) he saw on one occasion (albeit a deeply important occasion), during television reports following the funeral, that (2) he knew was not remotely reflective of the views of his community, and that (3) he knew was said by people who are held in contempt by the community. (“Snyder testified that he never saw the content of the signs as he entered and left St. John’s on the day of his son’s funeral,” and recall that the signs were 1000 feet away from the church.)

The speech wasn’t threatening. It didn’t damage the father’s reputation, or even the reputation of his late son. It wasn’t constantly repeated. I can’t quite see how it would exacerbate the father’s grief, which of course stems from his son’s death, not from the fact that a small minority of hateful, anti-American kooks and publicity hounds say the son deserved to die.

The speech doubtless made the father extremely (and rightly) angry. But is $2.9 million really a sensible compensation for that sort of emotional distress? Again, remember that this was supposed to be just the amount of compensatory damages. And of course, note also that even if the First Amendment were entirely out of the picture, the size of the compensatory verdict is constitutionally significant: Under the Court’s Due Process Clause jurisprudence, the punitive damages would be unconstitutional if they were too many times greater than the compensatory damages.

This, I think, further illustrates the danger of leaving juries with the discretion to decide which speech should be suppressed, especially under broad and vague standards such as “outrageous[ness].” Liability easily ends up turning on how much juries condemn the speaker’s viewpoint — as well as the speaker’s manner — and not just on supposedly objective factors such as how much damages the speech actually inflicted.


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