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Westboro ruling: Both "YAY!" and nay

by Jeremy Hooper

So as you might have already heard, Westboro Baptist Church was ordered yesterday to pay millions of dollars to a family of a slain soldier whose funeral the Phelps clan has protested. And of course the immediate reaction that comes to mind for all of those gays who are sick of Westboro blaming everything from volcanoes to hangnails on homosexuality is:

And rightfully so. There is no group whose schadenfreudistic retribution is more deserved or overdue. The natural reaction is to celebrate when a comeuppance is delivered their way.

However, our personal revelry is somewhat muted in this instance. When we take our personal views and our prior knowledge of the family's actions out of the equation, we'd be lying if we said we didn't have major problems and concerns with yesterday's verdict. In fact, we think it could ultimately backfire BIGTIME! Worse yet -- we fear it probably SHOULD backfire. Let us explain.

Here at G-A-Y, we chat with some of the Westboro members on a semi-regular basis. And if there is one thing we have learned about them, it's that they hold the law into high regard. They are always meticulous in jumping through all of the necessary hoops that are required of them before they embark on one of their disgusting protests. Many of the family members are trained in the law, and they take it quite seriously. They know the statutes that have been passed to try and curb their pickets, and they are typically mindful of their limitations. They also understand what is and is not libel, and they phrase themselves accordingly. Their hate is horrendous, but their actions are rarely unlawful.

So looking at yesterday's court case: They were charged with "violating the Snyder family's expectation of privacy at the funeral and for intentionally inflicting emotional distress." And yes, we agree that this and many families were forced to endure an unbelievably inhumane form of expression as they attempt to lay their children to rest. And surely their words are capable of causing a heightened degree of emotional distress. Trust us -- we get it! While much of America has only caught on to the family's actions in the two or three years that their protests have been affecting them, those of us in the gay community have been dealing with the Phelps' pickets (of AIDS victims, Pride parades, Matthew Shepard, etc) for almost two decades! So we are in no way insensitive to the plight of anyone who has had to endure one of their demonstrations. If anything, we are upset that it took our country so long to start speaking out and countering their messages!

But here's the thing: The protest for which they were fined was held in a public space. It was held in accordance with the state and federal law. It was held with materials that are not legally defamatory. While "God Hates Dead Soldiers" and "God Hates Fags" (two of Westboro's infamous picket signs) are venomous and immoral, they are at their core not much different from those mainstream evangelicals who picket gays with signs like, "Repent or Perish" or other religious based condemnations of homosexuality. This family views these as religious statements. And if we are going to allow for free speech (including hate speech), free expression, religious freedom, and all of the other tenets that make this nation unique and arguably great (some in nations that do ban hate speech might argue that their system is better), then we are going to have to be judicious in the way we distribute punishment.

We have expressed great concern whenever the laws have been passed to ban or limit Westboro's protests, and we have similar concerns over this new ruling. It's very easy to look at Westboro's grotesque legacy and jump right to a place where you feel any punishment is deserved. However, we have to dig a little deeper and look at these limitations -- the likes of which could someday be used to limit any protests with which our government deems unsavory -- with a critical eye. And at this point, our eye is not able to look at the jury's verdict without blinking.

Huge award in funeral lawsuit [Balt Sun]
**Westboro has the following to say about the verdict:

Picture 1-115

**Corresponding materials: Here is the initial press release that WBC used to announce their protest of Matthew Snyder's funeral. And here is a web posting they made in June of '06 in reaction to this lawsuit. Also, here are photos from the actual protest:

20060310 Annapolis-1 Images 2006 20060310 Annapolis2 Images 2006 20060310 Annapolis3

Last but not least: Here is the complaint (pdf) that was filed by Mr. Snyder.

*UPDATE: SLDN's Steve Ralls has some thoughts over on Bilerico.

: This matter has riled up loud voices on both sides of the fence. The NY Times Opinionator blog has a good roundup of some. Concurring Opinions also has an interesting take, mostly because the writer starts to see things differently once some of the popular misconceptions (that the Phelps clam was at or right next to the funeral, that the Synder family even saw Westboro on the day off the funeral, etc.) were corrected.

***UPDATE 3: Here's Fred Phelps on CNN:

***UPDATE 4: The grieving father, Albert Snyder, gave the following comment in a new interview:

"On a public corner, I don't care; it doesn't matter to me. They have that right, but they don't have a right to ruin and tarnish peoples' last memory of a loved one"

And honestly, this just further demonstrates to us how this real issue at hand is not being lookes at. For this WAS public property on which Westboro was picketing. It just so happened to be within the vicinity of (reportedly 1,000 feet away) a funeral.

There is room for dissension and complex thought on this matter. The debate will surely continue.

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Your thoughts

Most of the lawsuit concerned content on their website, not the protest per se. And there is no such thing as a "First Amendment right to commit a tort." Not even in a "public place."

Whether the elements were satisfied is unknowable without having attended the trial, seen the evidence, heard the testimony, etc.

But these are well-established torts that were litigated in a federal court. Hardly crude, spontaneous "Judge Judy" justice.

Posted by: KipEsquire | Nov 1, 2007 11:01:40 AM

What torts are you suggested they committed, Kip?

And while the subsequent web postings were also in play, the funeral protest ABSOLUTELY was the major part of the lawsuit.

Posted by: G-A-Y | Nov 1, 2007 11:10:22 AM

Love your site, but sorry, you don't get it. The First Amendment does not protect one from liability for harming another. I suspect what you really mean to say here is that you don't think the Snyder family members were really harmed by the protected speech of the Christians from Westboro.

Posted by: Lawyer R | Nov 1, 2007 1:36:09 PM

Lawyer R: Please do not say I "don't get it." I have been following Westboro, the laws being passed against them, and this specific case for years. We can both "get it" and still hold conflicting views.

I'm not at all saying that the Snyder family was unharmed by the words and actions of WBC. Gay folks have been wounded by WBC for years (Personally, I've had one of the younger members wish that I would get an aneurysm that would "explode my brain"). But we do absolutely protect unpopular speech in this country. And Westboro was espousing what they consider to be their religious views in a public setting (even if the rest of consider it something much more sinister). I absolutely feel that rulings like this set a dangerous precedent as to protests being limited because they are deemed harmful to another's feelings.

Posted by: G-A-Y | Nov 1, 2007 2:03:26 PM

I hope Phelps is the only tenant in the Hell he proscribes for so many others. He created it, let him live there. Actually, I think he just one more sad case of "look at Me!" I wonder if he can find enough gullible fools to refill his coffers. If the rest of that universe is any indication, he probably can. Preying (praying for ?)the fears and hopes of the poorly raised (minds, not cash), is a multi-million dollar media money maker opportunity for religion draped predators.

"Those who claim to know the Truth are Very Irritating to those of us who do."

Douglas Keachie


Posted by: Douglas Keachie | Nov 1, 2007 2:17:53 PM

I agree with the verdict. Phelps and his groovy-gouly clan have hid behind "Freedom of Speech" long enough. I'm all for free speech, but when your free speech causes physical harm to others? It's within your fair and legal right to sue and win if the harm caused is provable.

Posted by: Franc | Nov 1, 2007 5:46:14 PM

I must agree that my first reaction was "Thank God, the lord certainly does move in mysterious ways". But after the initial buzz wore off it does disturb me. I would never, I mean NEVER, rally to the defense of Phelp's ilk but, sometimes bad cases end up making bad law.

I think what we should do is the moment an appeal is filed we should help the serviceman's family find the attorney's and the economic resources to keep the Westboro bunch tied up in litigation and legal fees. If we keep their bank account overdrawn and with rising gas prices it will definitely put a dent in their travel plans.

Posted by: TxWhtBoy | Nov 1, 2007 7:42:41 PM

Remember Voltaire: "I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it"

I am in agreement with you on this, Jeremy.

Frankly, I don't have much sympathy for Snyder's distress. There is no secret whatsoever as to the content of the Phelps' message. If you don't want to be exposed to the message, don't read their signs.

This is not about the distress of the father. This is about the silencing of a voice that he doesn't want to be heard. And let us not be confused about the purpose of silencing the Phelps clan. I cannot speak as to Snyder's motivations, but I know that for quite some time anti-gay activists have wanted the Phelps clan to disappear.

They are an embarassment to those who want their own bigotry to look nice and civil and pretty. But with the Phelpses out there giving the same message - without the pretty wrappings - it makes the average guy recognize that behind the "protect marriage" and "pro-family" and "for the children" is really the underlying belief that God Hates Fags.

Now the Phelpses may have been silenced and the anti-gays can go about their business of protecting the good folk from the homosexual agenda without being thown into the same box as crazy loons. They can preach their religion of "hate the sin and love the sinner" without admitting that their love for the sinner looks a lot like hate.

And, of course, the next time that we protest someone, we'd better be certain that he's "public" enough. Otherwise our voices will be the next to be silenced.

The losers in this case were not the Phelpses. The losers are the small minority who stands against the majority and tells them something they don't want to hear. The losers are us.

Posted by: Timothy | Nov 1, 2007 9:34:25 PM


Blaming the victim (Snyder) is so passe, regardless of your own take on the matter, the law ruled on his side for a reason. We are not talking about a dissenting dialogue being hushed up in respect to the Phelps's, we are talking about sick individuals who's sole purpose of parroting the same line (God Hates Fags) is to cause an inevitable physical confrontation.

Posted by: Franc | Nov 2, 2007 6:28:44 PM

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