More On The Funeral Protestors Sagaby Doug Mataconis
Much has been written about the Rev. Fred Phelps and his merry band of protesters who travel the country staging demonstrations outside the funeral services of American soldiers killed in Iraq expressing their apparent belief that the soldiers died because of America’s toleration of homosexuals.
Today, a Federal Jury in Maryland awarded $ 2.9 million in damages to the father of a fallen Marine in connection with a protest:
A federal jury in Baltimore awarded nearly $11 million in damages yesterday to the family of a Marine from Maryland whose funeral was disrupted by members of a Kansas-based fundamentalist church.
One of the defendants said the civil award was the first against the church, whose members have stirred anger across the nation by picketing at funerals for service members killed in Iraq and Afghanistan, often carrying placards bearing virulent anti-gay slogans. The church maintains that God is punishing the United States, killing and maiming troops, because the country tolerates homosexuality.
Fred Phelps, pastor of the Topeka-based Westboro Baptist Church, scoffed at the jury and the award.
“It was a bunch of silly heads passing judgment on God,” he said. “I don’t believe anyone in the courtroom knows what the First Amendment is. Religious views are expressly protected by the First Amendment. You can’t prosecute a preacher in civil law or in criminal law for what he preaches.”
Phelps said the church would appeal, and he predicted that a higher court would overturn the award “in five minutes.”
In the lawsuit, the family of Lance Cpl. Matthew A. Snyder argued that it had suffered invasion of privacy and infliction of emotional distress.
“The fact of the matter is, a funeral’s private,” said one of their attorneys, Sean Summers. “There was no public concern when [church members] showed up with a ‘God Hates You’ sign.”
No, but the protests didn’t occur on private property, they occurred on public property while the church members were expressing their protected, though entirely stupid and repugnant beliefs.
Technically, this is not a First Amendment issue at all, because it doesn’t involve an attempt by the state to censor speech or punish, in a criminal sense, the right of the church members to express their beliefs. There is something troubling, though, when civil causes of action as ephemeral and hard-to-define as “invasion of privacy” (notwithstanding the fact that the events in question took place on public property) and “intentional infliction of emotional distress” (notwithstanding the fact that the church does the same type of protest at every funeral, thus suggesting that there’s no evidence they intentionally targeted the father in this case) are used to punish someone for actions that are clearly Constitutionally protected.
It will be interesting to follow this case through the appellate courts, because a reversal would seem to be the most likely outcome.
In the meantime, if the jury thought that their verdict would deter these people from continuing their protests, they are clearly wrong about that:
Shirley Phelps-Roper said the verdict made her 50th birthday yesterday a happier one. She said the verdict would help the church, many of whose members are from the Phelps family, get its message out.
“We’re making new signs: ‘Thank God for $10.9 million.’ Listen to that amount. It’s so laughable,” she said. “It was all I could do not to laugh. You guys think you can change God?”
Like I said, I find these guys offensive and stupid, but that doesn’t mean they should be punished for being either.
Update: Greg at Rhymes With Right makes an excellent point about this verdict:
I already see the next suit — filed by some pro-abortion woman against picketers in front of the local abortion clinic After all, doesn’t she have the right to seek medical care unharassed, without her privacy being invaded and emotional damage intentionally inflicted? Or a couple of summers back when local Democrats picketed the home of SwiftVets’ John O’Neill on his daughter’s wedding day — I could see a suit being filed to suppress that speech, which I found disturbing but recognize as constitutionally protected.
Turning what I would submit is already a troublingly vague cause of action like Intentional Infliction of Emotional Distress, and tort law in general into a weapon to suppress politically or personally offensive speech is a dangerous road to go down.
And if you don’t think that cases like the one Greg posits could someday be filed, then you haven’t spent enough time talking to my fellow members of the legal profession.