$11M verdict in funeral protesters case
Except for the potential free speech issues, it is good that a jury has sent a notice to these "Christians" that what they are doing is wrong and morally reprehensible.
federal jury on Wednesday awarded nearly $11 million to the father of a Marine killed in Iraq after members of a fundamentalist Topeka church picketed his son's funeral in 2006.
Albert Snyder of York, Pa., sued the Westboro Baptist Church, founder Fred Phelps and his two daughters after members of the church picketed the funeral of Lance Cpl. Matthew Snyder in Westminster, Md.
David Hudson, an attorney with the First Amendment Center, believes this is the first lawsuit filed by the family of a fallen servicemember against funeral protesters. The jury awarded $2.9 million in compensatory damages, $6 million in punitive damages for invasion of privacy and $2 million for emotional distress.
The church routinely pickets military funerals with signs reading "Thank God for dead soldiers" and "God hates fags," saying God is punishing America for its immoral ways.
The group is planning to picket the memorial services of the seven college students who died in a North Carolina house fire, it said on its website.
The church's leaders said that they will continue to picket military funerals and that they plan to appeal Wednesday's ruling. "Oh, it will take about five minutes to get that thing reversed," Phelps said.
The defense said in court that the burial was a public event and that even abhorrent points of view are protected by the First Amendment, which guarantees freedom of speech and religion.
The verdict comes as states across the USA enact laws to prevent protests from interfering with funerals, some specifically directed at Westboro's pickets. Forty states have passed laws in the past two years that keep protesters a certain distance from a funeral, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
First Amendment proponents have expressed concern over those laws, and are now troubled over the prospect of people facing monetary damages for speech that is deemed offensive. "You have a very unpopular group engaging in very unpopular speech," said Hudson. "When you have that combination, that can lead to bad law."
Snyder's attorneys said in court documents that Westboro's speech crossed the legal line. They argued that Lance Cpl. Snyder was a private citizen and his funeral was not a matter of public concern; that the language used on the church's websites directed at the Snyders was knowingly false; and that church members knew the speech would hurt Snyder's family.
Albert Snyder sobbed when he heard the verdict and said he would follow the church "until the day I die" to stop its protests at other funerals. His lawyer, Craig Trebilcock, called the verdict the church's judgment day. "They're always talking about other people's judgment day," he said. "Well, this is theirs."
Contributing: Associated Press