"This is the kind of case that is going to have an influence for generations," said constitutional lawyer Cliff Sloan. "It is the supreme court standing up and giving constitutional protection to extremely unpopular speech. It's really what the first amendment is all about."
"The impact of this case is that it sends a very strong message to courts and to the entire country that speech however unpopular, gets constitutional protection," he said.
The Rev. Fred Phelps and other members of the Westboro Baptist Church have picketed outside many military funerals holding signs with offensive messages such as "God Hates You" and "God Hates Fags." The church believes military deaths in Iraq and Afghanistan are God's punishment for U.S. tolerance of homosexuality.
Margie J. Phelps, the lead counsel for the Westboro Baptist Church and the daughter of the church's pastor, Fred Phelps, had argued that her group has the right to exercise free speech and pickets funerals with "great circumspection and awareness of boundaries."
She said the church files permits with police before every protest and stays in restricted areas, often hundreds of yards from the proceedings.
"There is no line that could be drawn here without shutting down speech," Phelps told reporters after oral arguments last year. "You should all be thanking us for that heavy lifting we did in there."
Lawyers for Snyder argued that the justices should reinstate the $5 million award granted by a lower court for the pain inflicted by the protests. "We are talking about a funeral," attorney Sean E. Summers argued. "If context was ever going to matter, it has to matter for a funeral."
Snyder has called the day his son died the "worst day of his life." His grief was compounded, he said, by being targeted by the church's demonstrations. "It is one thing no family should ever have to go through."