Thursday, November 1, 2007

Cough Up, Phelps

Fred Phelps and his banshees lose in court.

A Baltimore federal jury awarded nearly $11 million Wednesday to the father of a Marine killed in Iraq, deciding that the family’s privacy had been invaded by a Kansas church whose members waved anti-gay signs at the funeral.

It was the first-ever verdict against Westboro Baptist Church, a fundamentalist Christian group based in Topeka that has protested military funerals across the country with placards bearing shock-value messages such as “Thank God for dead soldiers.”

They contend that the deaths are punishment for America’s tolerance of homosexuality and of gays in the military.

Relatives of Lance Cpl. Matthew Snyder wept and hugged at the jury’s announcement, which came a day after closing arguments in the civil trial in federal district court.

“Now I know it’s going to be harder for them to do it to anyone else,” said Albert Snyder, who mourned at his son’s funeral in March 2006 while seven Westboro members waved signs nearby.

There’s only one reason Fred Phelps does this: he’s an attention-seeking maniac, and he boasts as such:

Fred W. Phelps Sr., Westboro’s founder, vowed to appeal to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit, in Richmond, Va.

“It’s going to be reversed in five minutes,” he said. This case, he added, “will elevate me to something important,” as it draws more publicity to his cause.


Snyder’s lawsuit spurred a constitutional debate over how far the First Amendment should extend to protect the most extreme forms of expression.

Some legal experts said the judgment could be a setback for those who believe in broad free-speech protections.

“I think when speech is a matter of public concern it still has to be protected, even when by social standards it is extraordinarily rude and outrageous,” said UCLA law professor Eugene Volokh.

I’ll leave the legal arguments as to whether or not this has a chilling effect on the First Amendment to the lawyers, but as far as I can tell, we have always had limits on free speech; i.e. shouting “Fire!” in a crowded theatre or child pornography. As long as these limits are applied equally, it’s hard to make the argument that it’s unfair to Phelps and his crowd to ban them from invading the privacy of a family funeral, even if it’s held in a public cemetery.

And frankly, it just feels good to see these monsters get their comeuppance.