The so-called church from Topeka, Kansas, whose members go around the country to demonstrate at funerals of Americans killed in war, has just suffered a $10.9 verdict from a federal jury in Baltimore. Albert Snyder, father of Marine Lance Cpl. Matthew Snyder, won that amount for “intentional infliction of emotional distress,” for what they did the day his son was buried. It is a difficult case on First Amendment grounds, but it should be upheld. The Westboro Baptist Church would then be seized, sold, and torn down.
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The facts for this comment, but not the legal conclusions, come from an article carried on the CBS website on 1 November. It is unclear whether the ACLU was involved in defending the Westboro Baptist Church in this case, but it is clear from other cases that the ACLU defends the most reprehensible “speech” like that present here.
A federal jury in Baltimore awarded a total of $10.9 million to Albert Snyder, father of Marine Lance Cpl. Matthew Snyder who was killed in Iraq, against the apparent Church and three of its leaders who demonstrated at his son’s funeral. The defendants carried signs that said, among other things, “Thank God for dead soldiers,” and “God hates fags.”
Twenty-two states have passed laws seeking to curtail the activities of this so-called Church and its members. The Church was founded by Fred Phelps. His two daughters, Phelps-Roper and Rebekah Phelps-Davis, are active in the Church and were also found liable. One of them is a lawyer and was active in the defense of the case.
Fred Phelps said, after the verdict, “”Oh, it will take about five minutes to get that thing reversed.”
Speaking as a three-decade First Amendment practitioner in the Supreme Court, this will be a difficult verdict to uphold on appeal. “Freedom of religion” is a broad right, but it is not absolute, as shown by cases on medical treatment of children over their parents’ religious objections. “”Freedom of speech” is also a broad right, but it is also not absolute, as shown by cases concluding “there is no right to cry fire in a crowded theater.”
Because of interviews I have seen with members of this so-called Church, I believe this verdict will be upheld. They have stated in public their intent to hurt other people by the demonstrations they hold, and the statements they present on their posters at these funerals. And, in order to appeal, they should be required to post bond. If they do not post bond, their church building, vehicles and personal property will be taken away, and the Westboro Baptist Church will disappear.
Like the child pornography case that was argued this week in the Supreme Court, there are certain cases whose content are so vile that they give a bad name both to the concept of free speech, and to the lawyers who defend such cases. The Westboro Baptist Church case goes further, and gives a bad name to freedom of religion, as well.
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