I may be about to make myself the most unpopular guy in the blogosphere with this post. I may even be accused of defending the indefensible. But I'm taken aback by the untoward celebration of a decision that imperils the free speech rights of Americans, even though the folks who lost this case are among the most despicable to slither from beneath a rock in the last several decades.
I'm talking, of course, about the nearly $11 million in damages a jury awarded to the father of a Marine killed in the war, against the Fred Phelps Klan for picketing the funeral with their usual array of disgusting signs and offensive chants, songs, and slogans.
A grieving father won a nearly $11 million verdict against a fundamentalist church that pickets military funerals out of a belief that the war in Iraq is a punishment for America's tolerance of homosexuality.
Albert Snyder sued the Kansas-based Westboro Baptist Church for unspecified damages after members demonstrated at the March 2006 funeral of his son, Marine Lance Cpl. Matthew Snyder, who was killed in Iraq.
The federal jury first awarded $2.9 million in compensatory damages. It returned in the afternoon with its decision to award $6 million in punitive damages for invasion of privacy and $2 million for causing emotional distress.
Snyder's attorney, Craig Trebilcock, had urged jurors to determine an amount "that says don't do this in Maryland again. Do not bring your circus of hate to Maryland again."
So let's be clear about the goal of this suit -- it was to punish speech conducted in a public place, speech that is fully protected by the Constitution, on the grounds that it is hurtful, offensive, and outrageous. That troubles me very deeply, and it is my profound hope that the decision is thrown out on appeal as incompatible with the First Amendment.
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.
So you see, it isn't that I carry a brief for the Fred Phelps Klan and their cult -- I don't. It is just that I worry about the First Amendment implications of allowing civil damages for legal, constitutionally protected speech in a public place on these grounds. Imposing civil damages for hurt feelings threatens our essential liberties. It isn't Fred Phelps whose speech I want to see protected -- it is everyone else's.
A similar question is raised at The Liberty Papers.
UPDATE: For those who object to the time and place (a public street proximate to a funeral), let me ask this question. If instead of a soldier this had been the funeral of a KKK member, and instead of the Phelps Cult it had been the a local black church or the NAACP proclaiming that God Hates Racists, would you view the judgment rendered in this case acceptable or appropriate? If not, are you seeking to punish the method used or the message you despise?
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