Wednesday, October 31, 2007

God Hates Fred Phelps

The father of a Marine killed in Iraq won a damage suit against funeral protester Fred Phelps. Albert Snyder won on every count of his complaint against members of the Westboro Baptist Church, as well as $2.9 million for compensatory damages and $8 million for punitive damages.

The jury's announcement 24 hours after deliberations first began was met with tears and hugs from the family and supporters of Lance Cpl. Matthew Snyder, whose March 2006 funeral was protested by members of the Westboro Baptist Church with signs including "Thank God for dead soldiers."

But some critics warned the judgement against Phelps, while emotionally satisfying, dealt a blow against the Freedom of Speech.

The courtroom fight came down to whether Westboro had a legal right to demonstrate at the March 2006 funeral of Lance Cpl. Matthew Snyder or whether the protesters crossed the line because their message impugned the grieving family's reputation and unlawfully invaded the Snyders' privacy.

It is always possible to construct contradictions between the claims of two competing rights. In this case it is between the rights to speech and privacy. Between Phelp's right to express his views and that of a father to grieve in piece. Society often rebalances the competing claims depending on the requirements of the time. Twenty two states enacted laws to prevent such disgusting displays without complete success, setting the stage for the court confrontation. Phelps should have seen it coming.


Blogger Yashmak said...

Freedom of speech is good. Freedom of privacy is good.
This verdict is, in my humble opinion, good.

Couldn't have happened to a nicer group of people. I am not the most religious guy on earth, but I was raised a Christian and even I know that God is love, not hate. Those WBC guys are repugnant.

10/31/2007 04:11:00 PM  
Blogger NahnCee said...

Is that enough to bankrupt them? It seems sort of puny if you want to take out a church. But maybe Phelps' church doesn't have the deep pockets of the Catholics, so $3 million will be enough to permanently get his attention.

Be nice if someone would sue the Code Pink types who've been making a nuisance of themselves in front of Walter Reed Hospital, too. I wonder how much a paraplegic Iraqi veteran could get out of a sympathetic jury if s/he were to sue the derangoid ladies in pink.

10/31/2007 04:26:00 PM  
Blogger PeterBoston said...

I think their organs should be sold to pay the judgment.

10/31/2007 04:29:00 PM  
Blogger Jay777 said...

A little update:

The jury first awarded $2.9 million in compensatory damages. It returned in the afternoon with its decision to award $6 million in punitive damages for invasion of privacy and $2 million for causing emotional distress.

10/31/2007 04:42:00 PM  
Blogger Elmondohummus said...

"But some critics warned the judgement against Phelps, while emotionally satisfying, dealt a blow against the Freedom of Speech."

I don't know if I agree. Freedom of speech is not immunity from consequences. If I'm understanding the case correctly - correct me if I'm not - then this is a tort by a person against the Church (and by extension, Fred Phelps) for violating some of his family's rights, including the right to privacy, among others. That the activity in question violating those rights happened to be an excercise in Free Speech doesn't absolve the group of the consequences of violating other people's rights.

No, I'm not a lawyer or law student, but I think that reasoning is on some pretty sturdy ground there. Anyway, I'm just thinking that Freedom of Speech issues is a red herring here; what I think matters is the violation of the plaintiff's family's rights.

If any actual legal professionals happen to be reading this: My opinion is of course subject to correction by a better informed opinion, so please challenge or correct this if I got something wrong. I believe I have the principles right, but again, I'm not a legal professional.

10/31/2007 05:35:00 PM  
Blogger John said...

As far as I can tell, the Phelps church followed a Maryland law preventing them from being too close to the burial. And the father didn't really see what they were doing until he looked it up on the internet.

I think what the Phelps church does is about as offensive as can be, but the more offensive the speech is the more it needs to be protected. I'm not going to pick a side on this particular issue, but I do see how the first amendment people could be concerned.

11/01/2007 05:26:00 AM  
Blogger BrianFH said...

Rights are inherently competing claims, which are either warranted or not in any given situation. Freedom of speed as a legislated right was intended to protect those objecting to the government, and does not, IMO, properly apply to calumny, slander, and abuse between individuals or groups.

So I agree with yashmak: "Couldn't have happened to a nicer group of people."

11/01/2007 06:05:00 AM  
Blogger Wadeusaf said...

Read the father's claims. It has little to do with distance and nothing to do with constitutionally protected speech. The suit was entirely proper and justified. As too, IMO, is the verdict.

Thank you Mr. Snyder, though your loss and your pain are great others may be spared the attentions of the unwelcome and ungrateful.

11/01/2007 07:38:00 AM  
Blogger NahnCee said...

first amendment people

In other words, the Muslim jihadists, and liberals interested in protecting their treason. Everyone else seems comfortable with the state of their freedom of speech.

11/01/2007 09:28:00 AM  
Blogger Pangloss said...

I don't like this. Correction, I like this because I really really really despise and dislike Phelps. But I don't like the verdict because I think it's unconstitutional. There is no right to privacy. That was invented out of whole cloth by the Supreme Court.

11/01/2007 02:43:00 PM  
Blogger Kevin Kunz said...

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.

Nothing the Government did here. This was a Civil case - one party against another. Not a 1st Amendment issue.

11/01/2007 03:28:00 PM  
Blogger khan70 said...

The 1st amendment indeed does protect your rights to free speech. But if you walk into a crowded theater with a rifle, does the right to bear arms follow you there? Nope. There are limits to the bill of rights, as there very well should be.

If they were protesting homosexuality peacefully and with civil tongues, then I see no problem with that.

But what they are doing is just slander, and should be punished to the FULLEST extent of the law.

11/01/2007 10:08:00 PM  
Blogger Bill said...

Okay I'll give you their first amendment right to be repugnant reptiles, but let's expand the right of free expression and let the cops on the funeral line turn their backs and let a few Marines and irate family members stomp a mudhole in Phelp's sorry ass and turn around and stomp it dry again.

11/01/2007 11:04:00 PM  
Blogger Razor said...

As one who for years has dealt with obnoxious religious protesters, my personal sympathies are entirely with the grieving family. These people and their message are horrible. But as a first amendment attorney, I worry that the verdict is dangerous territory. I don’t know the precise facts, but if they were expressing their message on public streets and sidewalks (what first amendment law calls a “public forum”), their speech was entitled to rigorous constitutional protection that probably cannot be overcome by the desire to protect a family’s feelings. The same holds for myriad other groups from across the political and social spectrum, from pro-life protesters in front of an abortion clinic, to the left-wing protesters who routinely protest on the sidewalk in front of Speaker Pelosi’s house, to the street preachers who every six months gather on public sidewalks in downtown Salt Lake City to call Mormons Satan worshippers as they enter their place of worship, and so on. The law allows for reasonable time, place, and manner restrictions, provided they are unrelated to the content of the speech and are necessary to advance a legitimate government interest. These people can legitimately be separated from the funeral so as not to disrupt it. But except in the rarest of circumstances, the law simply does not allow the government – including civil courts in response to private lawsuits (sorry Kevin Kunz, that’s still state action covered by the first amendment, see New York Times v. Sullivan) – to target speech because of its content. If upheld, rest assured this is a precedent that will come back to bite conservatives hard.

11/02/2007 12:53:00 AM  
Blogger Chris mankey said...

"In other words, the Muslim jihadists, and liberals interested in protecting their treason. Everyone else seems comfortable with the state of their freedom of speech."

Is this real? Are you really this stupid? Thanks for your fox news approved drivel about liberal treasonists!

11/02/2007 07:31:00 AM  
Blogger Beyond The Rim... said...

What many people seem to forget is that Fred Phelps, et al, were free to speak on the subject ad nausium as long as they did not do it within the privacy confounds of family's burial ceremony.

Their free speech rights were not affected. The only limits were on the location they could exercise them, albeit in a private location, during a private ceremony.

11/02/2007 12:34:00 PM  
Blogger Razor said...

Protesters can be excluded from private property, and the government could constitutionally establish buffer zones to ensure that protesters are kept well away from funerals and burials in public cemeteries. It could also prevent protesters from disrupting a funeral through noise. The current discussion among constitutional law professors -- both liberal and conservative -- is whether a legal claim for intentional infliction of emotional distress (like the one that resulted in liability for Phelps) is so inherently vague that it allows jurors to punish people if they don't like the speech. Hence, in San Francisco Phelps and his band of bigots are slammed because the jury finds their anti-gay message repugnant, whereas Code Pink protesters are let off easy despite traumatizing a family with claims that a beloved son died for oil, imperialism, Bushitler, and Halliburton. Again, we have to be careful.

11/02/2007 11:01:00 PM  

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