Grieving father sues Westboro Baptist Church asshats and wins $11 million.

Albert Snyder, father of Lance Cpl. Matthew Snyder who was killed in Iraq, has managed to successfully sue the asshats of Westboro Baptist Church that go around picketing dead soldier’s funerals with banners thanking God for killing the marines because America tolerates homosexuals. It was considered a long shot civil suit, but he won the lawsuit:

The brokenhearted father of a Marine killed in Iraq won a long-shot legal fight today after a federal jury in Baltimore awarded him nearly $11 million in a verdict against members of a Kansas church who hoisted anti-gay placards at his son’s Westminster funeral.

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.”

Snyder’s father, Albert, won on every count of his complaint, as well as $2.9 million for compensatory damages and $8 million for punitive damages.

However the case raises some troubling issues over where the right of Free Speech begins and ends. As much as I detest the Westboro Baptist morons I do think they have a right to protest if they so wish and I question the grounds on which this case was decided:

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.

The Marine’s father from York, Pa., sued the church and three of its members for intentionally invading his privacy because his deceased son did not have that right any longer. For the claim to be successful, the jury needed to conclude that the church’s actions at the funeral—and later, in a posting about Matthew Snyder on its Web site—were “highly offensive to a reasonable person,” according to the jury instructions.

Albert Snyder also claimed that the church’s actions were an intentional infliction of emotional distress. Under the law, the five women and four women of the jury needed to find that the church’s conduct was “intentional or reckless” to find for Snyder. Jury instructions also required that the conduct be “extreme and outrageous,” leading to severe emotional distress.

“You must balance the defendants’ expression of religious belief with another citizen’s right to privacy,” presiding judge Richard D. Bennett instructed jurors yesterday.

It goes without saying that some folks could argue that SEB itself is “offensive to a reasonable person” and I’ve written more than one entry that was critical of specific people not the least of which includes the Westboro Baptist church. As reprehensible as the actions of the Westboro people are, I’m not sure I see how they violated Snyder’s right to privacy and whether they had the intent to of inflicting emotional distress is also questionable. The idea that they can be sued simply because they were being disrespectful and saying things people don’t like is chilling to say the least. I wouldn’t be surprised to see this overturned on an appeal if the Westboro folks can afford to pursue it.

65 thoughts on “Grieving father sues Westboro Baptist Church asshats and wins $11 million.

  1. I don’t think I share your concerns Les.  I think the Jury acted fairly based on their instructions.  Your website is not imposed on anyone.  The Westboro nuts actively impose their disrespect on private individuals.  It’s one thing to hate homosexuality, a country that allows it, and a military tht fights for it, but it seems like a different ball game to to make an individual soldier the symbol and reason for one’s hate.  They can protest at the Capitol and Pentagon and military bases, but I really do think its a despicable invasion of privacy to protest a lone soldier’s funeral.  The soldier isn’t the problem, the system is the problem and the Westboro protestors are not making that distinction.  If they’re going to protest they need to protest groups and systems not individuals.

  2. I think the case is based on the idea that a funeral is a reasonably private affair. Simply saying ugly things in public isn’t enough to warrant a lawsuit, but going to someone’s funeral and intentionally causing emotional distress to the family is quite different.

    I agree the implications are troubling, though. I sure hope those judges put a stop on possible slippery slopes.

  3. Les if what these douchebags were doing did not infringe the law in some way, your country’s legal system would be written garbage.

  4. SEB isn’t following people around to private family affairs and getting in their faces.  No one is forced to read what is here.  What Fred Phelps does is different – he cannot be ignored.

  5. Even if an appeals court oveturns the decision later, today is a good day for reasonable people everywhere.
    I think the only people not offended by the ongoing actions of the Westboro Baptist Church’s members are the members of said church and a few other obscure nuts.
    My level of disgust related to this matter was high to say the least.  I have been waiting for some dead meambers f the W.B.C. to turn up when someone finally snapped.
    I salute every member of that jury for standing up for what we all know to be just and right.

  6. I salute every member of that jury for standing up for what we all know to be just and right.

    Except what I KNOW to be just and right is free speech and the freedom to say what you like because words don’t mean shit until they cause specific harm.

    I think it’s an ass decision. I think it’s counter to the Constitution. I might think Phelps is a douchebag, but I’m pretty damned protective of my right to call Phelps a douchebag even if I decided to find him at dinner and it upset his feelings.

    It’s a tyranny of the majority decision, for exactly the reason you put forth: “We all know.” The laws protecting people’s rights about free speech aren’t there to protect the people that everyone agrees with and no one is upset about. They’re there to protect the people that absolutely no one agrees with. That’s often not pleasant, but it’s a keystone of our legal system.

    Our laws are only egalitarian as long as they act to uphold the rights of every single person – no matter what people think about that person, no matter how bad everyone thinks the person is, no matter how easy it would be to yield to the larger voice of society as a whole.

  7. Hi, all!  I’ve been reading SEB for quite some time, but never really had anything of real substance to add (I also had an account at one time, and made a short comment here and there, but can’t for the life of me remember what it was so I made a new one).  Anyhoo….

    Religious belief is constitutionally protected but religious activities are not.  For example, people can’t refuse to educate their children, just because that’s their religion (though they’re free to believe one should not do that); nor can they refuse to pay taxes based upon their religious objection against war (the opposition is protected, but the action is not). 

    While the Supreme Court has found that “religious beliefs can be accommodated” (US v Lee, 455 US 252) it has also found that religious claims are not protected when they are “so bizarre, so clearly nonreligious in motivation, as not to be entitled to protection under the Free Exercise Clause.” (Thomas v. Review Bd. of Indiana Employment Security Div., 450 U.S. 707.)  I suspect this case would fall into the latter category as a matter of public policy.

    That of course leaves the question of free speech, which has already been answered by the jury when they used the “reasonable person” standard to determine their verdict.

    I do however wonder how in the world the father expects to get $11 million from a bunch of redneck Xian hate-mongers who probably don’t even work for a living, since they stay pretty busy protesting on average 3 funerals a week nationwide.  I’d guess they’re living off the government teet, and if I’m right, that means our tax dollars are supporting their exploits.  That pisses me off.

  8. I for one am completely glad somebody has finally beat the Westboro idiots at their own game.  For a while they ran around foisting frivolous lawsuits everywhere.  They deserve to pay dearly for the pain they have inflicted on grieving families.

    As for free speech – what they are doing is not free speech, it’s disgusting.  They have freedom to believe all they like and protest all they like – but not when it infringes on the right of some poor grieving parent to respectfully bury their child.

    To Appallacian Lady: they have plenty of money.

  9. MisterMook, there is a huge difference between telling someone they’re a douchebag and getting some buddies to hold up signs and let people know why your stiff corpse is the scum of the earth for doing something you didn’t necessarily agree with or intend to do.  My suspicion is that a lot of these soldiers probably did plenty of gay bashing in the armed forces and would choose, if they had the power, to restrict the rights and privileges of gay people more so than they are now.  Phelps is an extraspecial breed of idiot that is not expressing free speech.  Phelps’s fist is smashing into people’s noses and he’s gotten away with it for too long.

  10. To Appallacian Lady: they have plenty of money.

    In that case, let the seizures, garnishments, and attachments begin!  wink

    According to CNN:

    U.S. District Judge Richard Bennett noted the size of the award for compensating damages “far exceeds the net worth of the defendants,” according to financial statements filed with the court.

    The compensatory damages portion of the judgment is $2.9 million.  So I’d bet these people have far less than you seem to believe, since judges usually don’t make statements like that.

    Of course, it’s also possible that they committed perjury by lying on their sworn financial statements … but such rabid Xians would never do that, would they?  LOL

    Something I found disturbing is that, in a Reuters article released shortly after the verdict, the soldier was stated to be gay.  However, the soldier was straight, and they were picketing because they believe soldiers dying is punishment against America for tolerating homosexuality.  Nevertheless, that shows just how convoluted something like this can become due to the involvement of that hate group, since they always carry their “god hates fags” signs. 

    They’re therefore really lucky you can’t commit libel or slander against a dead person.

  11. I agree with Les here in that this case scares me a little too. A lot of our court system is based off of precedent. Meaning current court cases affect future cases. So a ruling against free speech could in fact be used as precedent in another free speech case down the road.

    That said, I do feel that funerals are regarded as private events, so there is no right to protest on the funeral grounds. If the morons at Westboro want to protest they should be forced to stay outside of the funeral grounds. And I do think they should have the right to protest, just not on the private grounds of the funeral.

    Personally I am against most forms of squashing free speech, because then it becomes harder to tell who the true fucking idiots are.  LOL

  12. It’s a disturbing ruling, and one that’s going to raise a lot of questions about freedom of speech and assembly.

  13. I feel a lot of Americans feel that the only definition of ‘free speech’ means the right to say what they like whenever they like, regardless of any circumstance.  I know many are going to reply of course it does.

    1) The Declaration of Independence is wrong in fact

    We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal,

    All Men are not created equal- the strong and the clever will always dominate the weak and stupid.  Being born a ‘Bush’ gives you a straight advantage over being born a ‘Jenkins’.

    they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights,

    Glossing over the Creator bit, the rights you have are only those prescribed by physics- the right to be attracted by a mass, the right for you to be stationary until acted on by a force (Chemistry is reliant on physics, biology on chemistry).

    ‘Rights’ do not exist.  A ‘right’ is what those in power (not society) allows you to do.  You can have your own arguments as to where power vests in the West.

    No one on this board has ever (to my knowledge) defended the ABSOLUTE right of free speech

    You can’t yell fire in a crowded theatre

    We accept limitations on our actions, as we accept our ‘rights’ are given on the understanding there are also ‘responsibilities’- an equally nebulous concept. Would anyone claim incitement to commit a crime as a ‘right’?  We accept limits on our rights, what we are arguing is where those limits are.

    Fred “Is he a repressed homosexual?” Phelps is allowed to make his points.  No one will stop him marching down the road, advertising on TV, handing out leaflets. HE HAS THE RIGHT TO FREE SPEECH.  What ‘we’ as a society (ok- ‘you’ as Columbines) have to decide, is does he have the right to exercise that anywhere and at anytime, regardless of other people?  Does he have the right to do it at 2am outside your house with a 500 watt PA system?

  14. While the constitution protects us from our government its application in personal tort law isn’t so absolute. There is already precedent about invasion of privacy especially if the plaintiff isn’t a celebrity or public figure so this wouldn’t be setting anything new. What we say in person or on blogs may be slander or libel but is not invasion of privacy by any definition. I think that a reasonable person would expect privacy at a family funeral.

  15. Personally I am against most forms of squashing free speech, because then it becomes harder to tell who the true fucking idiots are.

    In the main, I agree with those advocating free speech over the dubious “privacy” of the public street outside a church.  That *is* a disturbing precedent.  What if we wanted to picket SBC with “God hates haters” signs or something?  Could we be successfully sued?

    Yet there is one dimension to this that I don’t think anyone has explored.  Namely that the Bush Regime won’t allow coffins being unloaded to be shown—i.e. effectively marking the affair as “private”.  In the spirit of “thieves for their pilfering have authority when judges steal,” I suppose that the Snyders ~could~ make the case that the entire death-to-grave sequence is not for public consumption. 

    Anyhoo, that’s my tuppence-worth.  Now to polish off that first coffee in hopes of coherence later in the day…

  16. As for free speech – what they are doing is not free speech, it’s disgusting.

    Which is exactly the attitude that Les (and others here, and I) worry about in connection to this. Because some people would say the very same thing about this blog, or mine, or a variety of other topic treatments.

    While I agree with the jury that there was an intentional infliction of emotional distress and the actions were outrageous to most people—I am much happier that this was a civil case than a criminal one.  Though, to be sure, the chilling effect of large jury awards can be nearly as intimidating as criminal prosecution, I certainly wouldn’t want the basis for this award to be the same as the basis for criminal cases, i.e., gravely upsetting people from a thousand feet away.

  17. You can glaze over the reduction in every single person’s rights that this case establishes precedent all you like because Phelps is a douchebag, but the fact that this is a civil case isn’t a magic wand that makes it better. All it means is that by following this sort of censorship to its conclusion you’re going to have people with money (or large groups, or opportunist lawyers with wealthy targets) able to bring cases against people that are douchebags and shut them up by making them bankrupt.

    That’s especially troubling for political protests or religious expression or any number of things that all sorts of people can often get plenty offended about, that any number of perfectly normal wrong-minded people can find disgusting. How would any of you feel if someone used this sort of method to silence a pro-homosexuality, gay-awareness rally? What about pro-choice? What happens when the NAACP decides to crack down on white supremacists by bankrupting them? What happens when the white supremacists fight back by claiming that the entire civil rights agenda is offensive to them?

    I’m not saying that anyone would actually win these suits, but now a judge can’t simply throw them out because they’re protected speech. He’s got a precedent that says “you can offend someone so much they’re due damages.” Where’s that threshold? Is it solely due to mourning families of dead soldiers? Obviously those aren’t the only people who can be horrifically offended, so no. So you let these suits pass, and then just like in every other civil trial you’re looking at a case of “who can bleed money to make their case the longest?” versus “how much possible compensation can I take a chunk out of this entity with money for?”

    I’ve got zero sympathy for Phelps. This jury award isn’t a good thing though. Maybe not soon, but when Phelps is nothing but a bad memory some astute lawyer is going to lean on this case to silence someone or some entity whose offensiveness is less in question. Or maybe it won’t be, but it will still be in advancement of censorship.

  18. Hmm, this just got me thinking. For those that blog and are worried about lawsuits down the road, all you have to do is start an LLC and put the website under the LLC. Then open a bank account for the LLC and put in the minimum amount. If a lawsuit rolls around, all they can sue you for is what is in the bank account. And because it’s an LLC, they can only sue the company and not the individual.

  19. The problem is, as I see it, that although we have, on paper, the right to freedom of speech, in actuality we don’t, and never have – In other words we can expect a backlash if certain words are used in certain contexts.

    The whole movement of ‘Politically Correct’ is an abrigement of freedom of speech, and as LH pointed out, you can’t yell ‘fire’ in a theater. Look also at the Dixie Chicks and the mob-rule type backlash against them for expressing their opinion about Dubya, or the Beatles just for making the comment ‘We might just be more polular than Jesus. The censorship of movies, burning/banning of books etc. provide more evidence against the percieved 100% freedom of speech.

    At the core of this issue is not the illusory freedom itself, but is just how much censorship is too much, and where to place the boundries or checks-and-balances to assure that the restrictions never get out of control.

    Censorship is overzealously applied in fundamentalist Islamic countries, and was in Nazi Germany. These can be used as counterexamples to what we want to achieve.

    When two ‘rights’ conflict, a decision has to be made as to which takes precedence in this situation, a problem that evolves to a tyrrany if the ruling that was meant for a specific case becomes applied, without appropriate modifiers, to all situations involving a conflict of those two ‘inalienable’ rights

  20. Yall are really paranoid (conspiracy theorist level paranoia) if you think a blog where a bunch of atheists get together and Christian bash weekly getting shutdown is going to be the ultimate outcome of the Phelps case.

  21. You are missing the point. We are not afraid of getting shut down, but getting sued. One is much more devastating than the other.

  22. The problem is, as I see it, that although we have, on paper, the right to freedom of speech, in actuality we don’t, and never have – In other words we can expect a backlash if certain words are used in certain contexts.

    There are really three levels of freedom—or, conversely, three areas of censorship:  criminal, civil, and social.

    The First Amendment protects primarily against the first, because that’s what the Founders thought (rightly) was the greatest threat to political freedom—the government preventing free speech that criticized the government. The right is not absolutely in place (between the usual shouting fire exception and claims of national security, there are limits of various sorts), but by and large it’s pretty broadly accepted.

    That carries over somewhat to a civil setting, but there are are added areas of restriction, of competing individual rights—your speech might violate my privacy, or malign my character, or cause me other harms, in which case I can sue.  Your speech may violate a contract I have with you, in which case ditto.  These cases are also bound around with laws, and they can have a chilling effect, but they don’t represent the direct power of the state restricting speech.

    The last is the case of social censorship, which the law can’t touch for fairly obvious reasons.  That’s the “I don’t like what you said, so I’m going to socially punish you by not inviting you to my party, not buying your album, not voting for you, not donating to your cause,” etc.  That’s also called the marketplace of the ideas, and while we may roll our eyes at some applications of it, it’s still largely a matter of folks expressing their opinions, subjective judgments that can cut both ways (Joe-Bob hates the Dixie Chicks and joins in the boycott, but protests the boycotting of Billy-Bob Smith who sings about blowing away towel-heads, etc.).

    This latter censorship is not really an “abridgment of freedom of speech,” except, ultimately, in a social fashion.  And since most of us have opinions that we find repugnant, we vote with our ears and our eyes and our pocketbooks not to support them.  E.g., I don’t plan on sending any donations to the Westboro Baptist Church any time soon, and if there were an organized boycott of same, I’d support it—but that’s not abridging Fred Phelps’ speech, any more than boycotting purchases of Dixie Chicks CDs is abridging theirs.

  23. I don’t have time to address all the comments at the moment as dinner is ready, but I wanted to comment on something that Webs said earlier:

    That said, I do feel that funerals are regarded as private events, so there is no right to protest on the funeral grounds. If the morons at Westboro want to protest they should be forced to stay outside of the funeral grounds. And I do think they should have the right to protest, just not on the private grounds of the funeral.

    The Westboro folks weren’t ever on the funeral grounds and, in fact, Snyder never saw their protest at the time it took place. From the news article:

      Three adults and four children picketed the March 10, 2006, funeral at St. John Roman Catholic Church in Westminster. Westboro members insisted that their demonstration, about 1,000 feet from the Catholic church, took place legally.

      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. He read the signs for the first time during television news reports later that day.

    That’s the rub for me on this one. These idiots weren’t standing on the curb at the entrance shouting at the Snyder family as they drove into the church as some folks seem to be assuming they were. The Snyders didn’t even see them until much later in the day and that was in news reports.

  24. Les wrote:

    Three adults and four children picketed the March 10, 2006, funeral at St. John Roman Catholic Church in Westminster. Westboro members insisted that their demonstration, about 1,000 feet from the Catholic church, took place legally.

    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. He read the signs for the first time during television news reports later that day.

    That is indeed a very different scenario than that which I had been led to believe had happened, based on other news reports. Thank you for posting that, Les.

    Given this information, this might very well be a free speech case which will be overturned on appeal (assuming the defendants file an appeal).

    Webs wrote:

    A lot of our court system is based off of precedent. Meaning current court cases affect future cases. So a ruling against free speech could in fact be used as precedent in another free speech case down the road. 

    You are of course correct, but it’s not considered binding precedent unless the verdict is upheld on final appeal.  Therefore, at this point, this case cannot be used as precedent with regard to any other case.

  25. MisterMook, I think you are forgetting that rights must always be balanced against the needs of society. The reason we can’t yell “fire!” in a crowded theater is because of exactly that. In the olden days, disagreements were settled by duels, but that “right” was taken away at the whim of a society who found it objectionable. Duels were private affairs, but I’m sure you don’t mind their absence.

    The Phelps clan were clearly in the wrong, whether the eyes of the law recognize it or not. The only thing that has saved them from being sued before now is the fact that they are very good at hiding behind laws – and might I remind you that, according to the Phelps’, “God Hates America”, so they are hiding behind laws they don’t even believe in.

    This has not nearly the impact on Free Speech some people here think it does. Free Speech still very clearly covers honest opinion, reporting of facts, satire, and other such things. Free Speech never covered libel and slander (which are dishonest attacks on character) and being a public nuisance. What this judgment shows is that what the Phelps clan did is not covered under Free Speech (which it should not be), not that calling someone a moron for having a stupid belief isn’t. They aren’t even in the same field.

  26. In this version of the tort law involving Invasion of Privacy the above isn’t required. The demonstration inviting unwarranted exploitation and publicity is enough. Of course I don’t know the exact Maryland version.

    “Tort law protects one’s private affairs with which the public has no concern against unwarranted exploitation or publicity that causes mental suffering or humiliation to the average person.”

    Seeing the demonstration plastered all over the TV satisfies that.

  27. That’s an interesting use of a quote from Answers.com, but in this case whether you agree with Phelp’s politics or not, whether or not he’s a dick, it’s pretty clear that he’s engaging in political speech. He might be doing it in a hurtful, humiliating way that pisses people off – but since his “church’s” goals are apparently to change the laws of the land regarding the enlistment practices of the military it would be protected if even the judge were sympathetic and had any sense.

    MisterMook, I think you are forgetting that rights must always be balanced against the needs of society.

    Which is exactly the point I’m making: The right of the grieving in this case don’t trump the principles that our society is based upon. Freedom of speech and assembly isn’t often as glamorous and as pretty as people might like it to be, but in the end it’s perhaps the most critical of rights in a democracy. It doesn’t matter how you are silenced, if it’s with a police baton or a court letter – if people can silence other people engaging in political discussion no matter how foul to the average person based solely upon their perceptions on the “correctness” of their speech then you’re looking at a constitutional crisis.

    might I remind you that, according to the Phelps’, “God Hates America”, so they are hiding behind laws they don’t even believe in.

    You can “remind me” all you like, but the laws of the land don’t have to be believed in to apply equal to everyone. All you’re doing is trying to weasel away his rights because he’s a bad person. Frankly I don’t care if Phelps were also championing the sodomy of young children, white supremacy, denying the Holocaust, and advocating sex with livestock. The law isn’t about what a crappy person you are, or how valid your beliefs are. It doesn’t not apply if you hate America, if you say you’re not an American, or if you refuse the sovereignty that covers you.

    The law doesn’t only apply if you’re a nice person or if society agrees with what you say, it’s most important to the principles of our government that it apply when you’re a really shitty person that no one agrees with at all.

  28. There’s a great word in German: “jain”, meaning “yes-no” (ja+nein). I’m going to have to plant my feet firmly on the slippery slope of yes-no here and say: hmmm- jain.

    On the one hand: Phelps is scum, and protesting at a private funeral is beyond the pale. On the other: free speech is very important. But where do you draw the line?

    Shouting “fire” in a crowded theater with no fire is pretty obviously an abuse of free speech. My saying that Phelps is scum, here on an open internet forum, and not spit in his face at dinner with his family, is equally pretty obviously a right worth defending. But there’s lots of stuff in between, and I’m unwilling to say that this case is obviously on one side of that fuzzy line or the other.

    That’s the difficult thing about moral systems, regardless of whether they’re religious or not: they are not black and white, and sometimes hard decisions must be made.

  29. MisterMook, I think you are forgetting that rights must always be balanced against the needs of society. The reason we can’t yell “fire!” in a crowded theater is because of exactly that.

    Actually you can yell fire in a crowded theater, so long as there is actually a fire. If there isn’t and you end up causing a panic that gets people hurt then you’re going to be held accountable for it. Freedom of Speech doesn’t mean you’re not responsible for what you say especially if what you say is demonstrably false.

    In the olden days, disagreements were settled by duels, but that “right” was taken away at the whim of a society who found it objectionable. Duels were private affairs, but I’m sure you don’t mind their absence.

    I’m not sure I see how outlawing dueling is a restriction on free speech.

    The Phelps clan were clearly in the wrong, whether the eyes of the law recognize it or not.

    I’m not sure I agree with you on this point. What the Westboro Baptist folks do is odious and offensive, but that’s not the same thing as wrong. There are plenty of people out there who find SEB to be odious and offensive and would like nothing better than to make it go away. I get email from them every so often.

    and might I remind you that, according to the Phelps’, “God Hates America”, so they are hiding behind laws they don’t even believe in.

    Simply because Phelps believes God hates America doesn’t mean he (Phelps) doesn’t believe in America’s laws. In fact, near as I can tell, Phelps and his clan have made every effort to abide every one of the (legally dubious) laws that have been passed in various states designed to make his protests as difficult to do as possible.

    This has not nearly the impact on Free Speech some people here think it does. Free Speech still very clearly covers honest opinion, reporting of facts, satire, and other such things.

    Again, near as I can tell, the Westboro folks are expressing honestly held opinions and I’m willing to bet they’d claim that they’re reporting facts on how God feels based on the evidence they find in the Bible. If the Bible does turn out to be true then they could very well be right on that point, though it goes without saying that I doubt that possibility.

    Free Speech never covered libel and slander (which are dishonest attacks on character) and being a public nuisance.

    If being a public nuisance was grounds for banning someone’s right to say something then there’s a lot of people out there who should be locked up right now. It’s true that the law does cover libel and slander, but you have to prove it’s libel and slander first and it deserves pointing out again that this wasn’t a criminal trial for libel or slander. This was a civil suit that effectively achieved what criminal suits have been unable to do: Silencing someone saying unpopular things.

    I agree wholeheartedly with the following people who are far better thinkers than I am:

    “If liberty means anything at all, it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear.”—George Orwell

    “I have fought censorship all of my adult life. To me, the most precious of all rights in this marvelous country called the United States of America is the freedom to think, write and say whatever is on your mind… That freedom also extends to thoughts that are stupid, ignorant or incendiary. No one needs a First Amendment to write about how cute newborn babies are or to publish a recipe for strawberry shortcake. Nobody needs a First Amendment for innocuous or popular points of view. That’s point one. Point two is that the majority-you and I-must always protect the right of a minority-even a minority of one-to express the most outrageous and offensive ideas. Only then is total freedom of expression guaranteed.”—Lyle Stuart

    “The principle of free thought is not free thought for those who agree with us but freedom for the thought we hate.”—US Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes

    “I would rather be exposed to the inconveniences attending too much liberty than to those attending too small a degree of it.”—Thomas Jefferson

  30. A little more of our freedom has been chipped away.

    I don’t like the messages they preach, but it is their right to be able to preach it. I sincerely hope they win the appeal.

  31. The Westboro folks weren’t ever on the funeral grounds and, in fact, Snyder never saw their protest at the time it took place.

    Thanks for clearing that up Les. And I pretty much agree with the other comment you left.

    And this, now that it appears they weren’t really doing anything wrong.

    I don’t like the messages they preach, but it is their right to be able to preach it. I sincerely hope they win the appeal.

  32. And this, now that it appears they weren’t really doing anything wrong.

    Oh, they were doing something wrong.  But I must concede it appears, it was a constitutionally protected wrong.

  33. Freedom of Speech doesn’t mean you’re not responsible for what you say especially if what you say is demonstrably false.

    Well, yeah, that was the intent of my statement, but I won’t excuse myself for sloppy argumentation. Good catch. But, again, the point is that one should be held accountable for his or her actions, is it not? If those actions were for the public good, then those actions should be protected, right?

    I’m not sure I see how outlawing dueling is a restriction on free speech.

    It isn’t, but it does illustrate the fact that sometimes rights held one day can be taken away the next, and sometimes it is for the better that we give up that right. Of course, I don’t want to see our freedoms chipped away at any more, especially after that hateful USA PATRIOTS Act, but I’d rather think the rights I have are hard-won and well-considered than merely my birthright.

    I’m not sure I agree with you on this point. What the Westboro Baptist folks do is odious and offensive, but that’s not the same thing as wrong.

    Agreed. However, it wasn’t that they were being offensive that caught my eye. It was that they were being nothing but offensive. There are probably better ways to make a point than to demonstrate at a funeral and to impugn a dead man’s character.

    Again, near as I can tell, the Westboro folks are expressing honestly held opinions and I’m willing to bet they’d claim that they’re reporting facts on how God feels based on the evidence they find in the Bible.

    I see your point, but the problem here is a matter of context.

    I have a great dislike of Fred Phelps, so I can say I would be glad when he were dead. I might be a horrible person for that, but I base my opinion on actual things Fred Phelps has done and the character he has displayed in public and the wrong s which, in my opinion, he and his minions have inflicted on other people.

    When the Phelps clan thanks God for dead soldiers, however, their obvious expression of hatred for soldiers has very little correlation to anything a particular soldier may have done. Still, however, I would say that saying such a thing is protected by Free Speech, even if it is very offensive to me.

    Now, when the Phelps clan makes such a general statement in relation to a particular soldier’s funeral, it not only goes beyond the bounds of good taste; it’s implying that that soldier deserved to die for some reason. It can also be argued that the Phelps Clan is advocating the death of soldiers (which is bad enough) and is making their point with personal attacks.

    It’s a very long way off from merely being offensive to others or ridiculing someone for being an asshat. I’m very sure you, Les, would never even appear to advocate someone’s death.

    I agree with all the concern that the judgment restricts our rights a little more, but I would ask you whether you’d like to have someone else have that right.

  34. It isn’t, but it does illustrate the fact that sometimes rights held one day can be taken away the next, and sometimes it is for the better that we give up that right.

    When was dueling ever a right? I think it was just something people did, not something protected constitutionally.

    However, it wasn’t that they were being offensive that caught my eye. It was that they were being nothing but offensive. There are probably better ways to make a point than to demonstrate at a funeral and to impugn a dead man’s character.

    Isn’t that a distinction without a difference? Anyways, you are likely right that there may be better ways to demonstrate, but that doesn’t matter. The issue is that the Westboro asshats have the right to protest.

    Now, when the Phelps clan makes such a general statement in relation to a particular soldier’s funeral, it not only goes beyond the bounds of good taste; it’s implying that that soldier deserved to die for some reason. It can also be argued that the Phelps Clan is advocating the death of soldiers (which is bad enough) and is making their point with personal attacks.

    None of which really matters since the statements the Westboro folk make are protected as free speech, or at least should be.

    I agree with all the concern that the judgment restricts our rights a little more, but I would ask you whether you’d like to have someone else have that right.

    I can’t answer for Les, but I will answer for myself with a definitive yes!

    When you restrict rights to free speech you make it harder for everyone to speak freely and express their ideas. Reason being, when rights are restricted suddenly people have to worry about what they say. Before ideas are expressed you have to first say, “Hmm, is it okay to say this.” Fewer people will express opinions for worry of what is allowed.

    Also you are making laws based off of morals for certain individuals. For instance, if the right to free speech is suppressed who decides what is an ok topic to discuss? In the words of the great South Park creators, “It all has to be ok or none of it is ok.”

  35. The Phelps clan were clearly in the wrong, whether the eyes of the law recognize it or not.

    I think everyone here pretty much agrees with that.

    The only thing that has saved them from being sued before now is the fact that they are very good at hiding behind laws – and might I remind you that, according to the Phelps’, “God Hates America”, so they are hiding behind laws they don’t even believe in.

    The same has been said for communists, anarchists, and “people who don’t love our great country.”  Presumably that shouldn’t be a reason for preventing or punishing their speech.

    Free Speech still very clearly covers honest opinion, reporting of facts, satire, and other such things. Free Speech never covered libel and slander (which are dishonest attacks on character) and being a public nuisance.

    As far as I can tell, the Topekans hold their loathsome opinions quite honestly.  And “public nuisance” laws are among the first tools used toward any protester that the public (or the powerful) doesn’t like.

    I’ll add in a couple of quotes alongside Les’:

    “You can only protect your liberties in this world by protecting the other man’s freedom.”—Clarence Darrow

    “I believe that the First Amendment should cover everything. Even the incredibly icky, distasteful stuff. Because if we let “them” start making ethical judgments, they might not stop until it’s nothing but Norman Rockwell and Hummel figurines.”—Phil Foglio

    “No matter whose lips that would speak, they must be free and ungagged. The community which dares not protect its humblest and most hated member in the free utterance of his opinions, no matter how false or hateful, is only a gang of slaves. If there is anything in the universe that can’t stand discussion, let it crack.”—Wendell Phillips

    “The First Amendment exists to insure that freedom of speech and expression applies not just to that with which we agree or disagree, but also that which we find outrageous. I would not amend that great shield of democracy to hammer a few miscreants.”—Colin Powell

    “The Constitution gives every American the inalienable right to make a damn fool of himself.”—John Ciardi

    “The idea that any kind of free society can be constructed in which people will never be offended or insulted is absurd. So too is the notion that people should have the right to call on the law to defend them against being offended or insulted. A fundamental decision needs to be made: do we want to live in a free society or not? Democracy is not a tea party where people sit around making polite conversation. In democracies people get extremely upset with each other. They argue vehemently against each other’s positions. (But they don’t shoot.)”—Salman Rushdie

    “Since when do you have to agree with people to defend them from injustice?”—Lillian Hellman

  36. Deaths of Soldiers- Caused by God. God can will anything he wishes.  So fine imposed must surely be okay with God.  Or will it only be winning the appeal God gets the credit for, bad stuff is caused by athiests, all good stuff if God’s.

  37. When was dueling ever a right? I think it was just something people did, not something protected constitutionally.

    It was considered so at one time – at least, a right of the gentry. That’s one of the reasons it was outlawed in these United States, by the way. Rights aren’t just those things we do which are protected.

    Isn’t that a distinction without a difference? Anyways, you are likely right that there may be better ways to demonstrate, but that doesn’t matter. The issue is that the Westboro asshats have the right to protest.

    Hm. I think we aren’t differing in opinion on whether they have the right to protest, but as to whether their manner of protest should be protected. Part of that, I think, comes from the fact that there is no accepted definition of “hate speech”, which I am sure we all would agree should not be protected under free speech.

    The question is, did the Phelps clan go too far? And if they did, should we sacrifice our moral integrity for an ideal? Most of the responses I have seen here only graze the question. There is no comparison between the Phelps clan and the Communist Party because one is pure hate-spouting masquerading as religion whereas the other is an honest dissent towards our method of government.

    Understand that the idea of my right to speak freely being taken away scares the Hell out of me, but I don’t know that I am willing to let someone say just any hateful thing that pops into his head, in any place and at any time, then hide behind a law he doesn’t even respect. Westboro doesn’t go out to spark discussion or voice dissent but to inflict damage with their hate.

    Should we really be protecting that, or is it possible we can come up with a good way of telling the difference between hate and dissent?

  38. Which means this discussion is futile. Plenty of people have posted as to why free speech is important and why the Westboro folk should be allowed to protest all they like.

  39. or is it possible we can come up with a good way of telling the difference between hate and dissent?

    Hate and dissent are not mutually exclusive.  What’s illegal is harassment, and with the more complete picture this is a bit iffy.

  40. Which means this discussion is futile.

    I value the rights I have precisely because I am willing to question them. How else would we know their worth?

    Plenty of people have posted as to why free speech is important and why the Westboro folk should be allowed to protest all they like.

    I merely maintain that there is a large difference between protest or discussion and just plain being mean. The Westboro folks are trying to make a point, sure, but they have demonstrated over and over again that they don’t care who they hurt. I’m all for lively discussion and even ridicule, but how far is too far?

    Hate and dissent are not mutually exclusive.  What’s illegal is harassment, and with the more complete picture this is a bit iffy.

    I concede that point. Freddie-boy has become much more shrewd in his old age, hasn’t he? Still, we have the feeling he has crossed some line, but we can’t seem to find where it is.

    This discussion isn’t futile at all. I am always willing to concede that Fred Phelps did nothing illegal – and I have, but that’s not what this civil suit is about, by the way. Tort is about damage done to someone else, not illegal behavior.

    Nobody has yet convinced me that speech should be protected no matter how offensive. All I have here are reiterations of an ideal and lots of lovely quotations, which are not enough. If you can’t tell someone why you deserve a right someone else fought for, then how are you not cheapening it?

  41. Nobody has yet convinced me that speech should be protected no matter how offensive.

    Well Heinlein used to say “Certain types of loudmouthism should be a hanging offense” and in a perfected society that might be arguable.  But debating if someone has gone “too far” implies we know or can decide where the line is or that there should be one.  What stops me from getting out my carpenter’s pencil and straight-edge is just this; offensive speech is the only kind that needs protection.  I am keenly aware that there are people in some parts of the world who feel that my characterization of Mohammad as a ‘warrior prophet’, and the Muslim religion as still quite violent, should be a beheading offense.  I wouldn’t want them suing me either.

    Likewise if someone wants to make the same case against Christianity (and it can certainly be made) they should have the freedom to do so.  But they should not be able to stand up in a Christian church gathering and challenge people there; it’s private property.  But stand across the street holding a sign?  Let the Christians either ignore him or prove him wrong.

    As an aside, how much harm is Phelps really doing to society at large?  His open bigotry has probably done as much for gay rights as any gay rights parade.  Maybe hidden prejudice does the most harm.

  42. Nobody has yet convinced me that speech should be protected no matter how offensive. All I have here are reiterations of an ideal and lots of lovely quotations, which are not enough. If you can’t tell someone why you deserve a right someone else fought for, then how are you not cheapening it?

    So you apparently didn’t read this at all and just decided to skip it…

    When you restrict rights to free speech you make it harder for everyone to speak freely and express their ideas. Reason being, when rights are restricted suddenly people have to worry about what they say. Before ideas are expressed you have to first say, “Hmm, is it okay to say this.” Fewer people will express opinions for worry of what is allowed.

    Also you are making laws based off of morals for certain individuals. For instance, if the right to free speech is suppressed who decides what is an ok topic to discuss? In the words of the great South Park creators, “It all has to be ok or none of it is ok.”

    If you don’t like what I wrote, read what DOF said, he is much more eloquent than I am.

  43. Okay, okay, I’ll relent. Good show! And yes, Webs, I did catch that comment, but the problem with it is that it conflates “expression of opinion” with “possible criminal conduct” (my interpretation).

    The point I wanted to make is that this is a civil suit, not a criminal suit. The two are not the same and do not necessarily reflect upon one another in our system. For example, just because you broke the law does not mean a civil suit could be brought against you, and just because a civil suit has been brought against you does not mean you broke the law.

    Because what Westboro did was reprehensible and damaging, the family was perfectly within their rights to sue the church just as the church was perfectly within their rights to stage that protest. Both parties are in the right here.

    This lawsuit really wasn’t about free speech at all; it was about someone who caused harm to another in the exercise of their rights. Civil suits are meant to fill in the gaps where the guaranteed rights of the people can conflict. There will be no repercussions on freedom of speech (criminally) because there was no criminal activity.

    Sure, this case might make some tort easier to prove, but the whole point here is that, while you are free to say whatever you please, you have to consider the effect of what you say as well.

    And that is my two dollars’ worth.

  44. I’m all for lively discussion and even ridicule, but how far is too far?

    Nothing unless it results in physical harm.

    Their protest was no different than a public Klan rally. It was public, very controversial and hated by the majority of people. However it is their American right to have a public rally without being forced to give $11m to every pussy that is offended by their message.

  45. DOF: But debating if someone has gone “too far” implies we know or can decide where the line is or that there should be one.

    Much more importantly than that, since I’d grant that “we” (meaning, say, the local community here at SEB, would be able to come up with some sort of answer to those questions that I could live with) is not what we’re talking about here.  We’re talking about anyone who has the power of the state behind them—be it Dubya, Hillary, Lincoln or Nixon—being the one to draw the line as to what goes “too far.”

    It’s not a power I trust in myself—I’ll be damned if I’m going to trust it in others, let alone others in power.

    Ryan: This lawsuit really wasn’t about free speech at all; it was about someone who caused harm to another in the exercise of their rights. Civil suits are meant to fill in the gaps where the guaranteed rights of the people can conflict. There will be no repercussions on freedom of speech (criminally) because there was no criminal activity.

    True, and that makes it somewhat more tolerable.  However, I question whether emotional distress in this case equates to that substantive level of harm that the damages indicate (especially given the facts of the case).  And, as has been noted, civil suits can lead to virtual censorship through a chilling effect, especially when subjective measures like emotional distress are involved.

  46. Looks like most folks have said what I was going to say on this subject already so I’ll just keep quiet.

    Well, except that now I haven’t…

  47. I was surprised this scenario brought about a lawsuit before a violent end, to tell you the truth. I am not bothered by a perceived threat to freedom of speech as much as I am bothered by a refusal to make some distinctions. Comparing the Westboro Baptist church activities to this blog or any other, are you kidding me?

    People are disgusted by what the church members say, and people have been for a long time. No winning lawsuit came about until the church went too far, and rightfully so. We can’t let people harass other people at funerals. It is not a free speech issue. It’s a cruelty issue, it’s a safety issue, etc.

    My bet is the first amendment, as we know it, will not change because Fred Phelps and his like are told they cannot do this to people.

  48. Moloch: Nothing unless it results in physical harm.

    Unfortunately, that doesn’t work – otherwise, torture could simply be defined away as “physical harm” while we do all we can to completely screw our enemies’ minds. There is a limit to be defined, I agree, but it should probably be well before physical harm. Say, defamation of character or libel, for instance (which is what this case was about).

    Moloch: However it is their American right to have a public rally without being forced to give $11m to every pussy that is offended by their message.

    There is offense and then there is the harm that comes from what was said. I have fairly thick skin from constant verbal abuse in my childhood, so I can understand your objection to those “pussies” who seem to take offense to everything anyone else says. Then there is the effect of (falsely) defaming someone’s character, which is proof of tort, and which is the subject of this civil suit. It’s not a matter of free speech but saying anything to cause harm.

    ***Dave: We’re talking about anyone who has the power of the state behind them—be it Dubya, Hillary, Lincoln or Nixon—being the one to draw the line as to what goes “too far.”

    This case wasn’t about anyone in power. What it was about is whether a religious authority should be able to get away with defaming someone’s character in the name of religion. Given that our courts do not favor any religion, this case was correctly handled as a defamation of character suit (amongst a few other things). The decision was correct and backed by a large precedent. I understand your fear, but it simply does not apply here.

    ***Dave: And, as has been noted, civil suits can lead to virtual censorship through a chilling effect, especially when subjective measures like emotional distress are involved.

    So? Would you like it if someone started spouting plausible but untrue things about you that you could not defend yourself against? Sometimes a chilling effect is a good thing. I’d hope you would want the courts to back you up if someone were spreading false rumors about you in an effort to damage your reputation, which is the idea here.

    As I said before, this decision may have set precedent in future decisions concerning radical religious groups and what they can say, but it does not impinge on Free Speech. You are still perfectly free to be an annoying asshole as long as what you say is true, is an honest interpretation of the facts, or is faithful reporting of quotation, regardless of your purpose in making such a statement. In other words, nothing much has changed.

  49. So? Would you like it if someone started spouting plausible but untrue things about you that you could not defend yourself against? Sometimes a chilling effect is a good thing. I’d hope you would want the courts to back you up if someone were spreading false rumors about you in an effort to damage your reputation, which is the idea here.

    Except that the protestors (insert obligatory “Fred Phelps is a hateful lunatic” disclaimer here) weren’t actually defaming the individual who sued them, but his son and the military in general.  Awful and maddening and shameless—but a personal defamatory harm done to the father?  I think not.

    You are still perfectly free to be an annoying asshole as long as what you say is true, is an honest interpretation of the facts, or is faithful reporting of quotation, regardless of your purpose in making such a statement. In other words, nothing much has changed.

    The case was settled based on invasion of privacy (dubious, from what I’ve read) and the idea of malicious infliction of distress (possibly so, but nothing to do with the truth or falseness of the charges).  Indeed, the concepts behind the statements that “God hates fags” and “Thank God for IEDs” are as unprovable as true or false as any more orthodox or mainstream religious or philosophical statement.

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