05 April 2010


4 APRIL 2010

Fallen Marine's Dad Must Pay Court Costs of Group who Picketed his Son's Funeral
posted by: Steve Williams 3 days ago (from the US group CareTo)

Your son dies in a non-combat related vehicle accident in Al Anbar province in Iraq in 2006. He was just 20 years old.

Still grieving, you arrange a funeral, and a large number of people turn up to pay their respects to a young man who died in service of his country, doing what he loved. And then you see that, just a few hundred meters away, a group of people have gathered, and they hold signs that say, "Thank God for Dead Soldiers," "God Hates You," and "Sempe Fi, Semper Fags."

Albert Snyder of York, Pennsylvania, faced just such a reality when, burying his only child, Marine Lance Cpl. Matthew Snyder, he found members of the notorious Westboro Baptist Church of Topeka, Kansas, picketing outside the funeral.

Headed by minister Fred Phelps and other members of the anti-gay Phelps family, the Westboro group has become infamous for picketing soldier's funerals, displaying anti-semitic billboards, and avowing that America is a doomed nation because of its "fag enabling" laws and permissive attitude to homosexuality.

Understandably hurt by the Westboro group's actions, Snyder decided to take them to court, suing for intentional infliction of emotional distress, defamation and invasion of privacy, all in the hope that this would deter the Phelps clan from picketing other soldier's funerals in the future.

The Westboro group's defense was that they were in full compliance with state law, standing the required distance away from the funeral event, not picketing on private property, and citing that their actions were protected as matters of free speech and religious rights.

In 2007, a federal jury awarded Snyder $11 million in damages. The Westboro protesters appealed. The amount was later reduced to $5 million, and then in September, 2009, the decision was overturned completely by the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals.

The court ruled that this was indeed a matter of free speech, and said that, "as utterly distasteful as these signs are," referring to the materials that the Phelps family often brings with them on their picketing campaigns, "they involve matters of public concern," and therein the court determined that the group had acted within its rights.

This week, the Court of Appeals ruled that Snyder must pay $16,510 in legal defense costs for the Westboro group. While I do not believe that this is necessarily unusual in this kind of case, it does feel like adding "insult to injury" as the Associated Press notes in its report, especially given that the Snyder family is known to have been struggling to meet the financial demands of taking this case to the Supreme Court.

The news of the court's order has outraged many, especially in light of the fact that the Supreme Court of the United States has already agreed to hear the case and to take on the question of whether the First Amendment allows the Westboro group to picket funerals in this deliberately provocative manner.

From the AP:

"We are extremely disappointed," said Sean E. Summers, an attorney for Snyder. He added that the high court will likely hear the case during its October term and make a decision in June of next year.

"The Court of Appeals certainly could have waited until the Supreme Court made its decision," Summers added. "There was no hardship presented by Phelps."

In a time of much publicized derision, this is a story that seems to have crossed political lines, uniting liberals and conservatives alike in agreement that, even if this ruling on free speech is technically correct (a point that is being hotly debated), there is an injustice in requiring Albert Snyder to pay any money to the Westboro protesters.
From the Baltimore Sun:

On Tuesday, Mark C. Seavey, new-media director for the American Legion, posted a message on his Legion-affiliated blog, The Burn Pit, urging readers to donate to the Albert Snyder Fund. The American Legion's message was picked up by conservative political blogger Michelle Malkin, who called the Westboro protesters "evil miscreants" and urged readers to donate.

"Regardless of how you feel about the merits of the Snyders' suit, the Snyders deserve to know that Americans are forever grateful for their son's heroism and for the family's sacrifice. We shouldn't stand by and watch them bankrupted," Malkin wrote. There is a bit of good news in all this, though. In 2007, Albert Snyder appeared on television and told Fox News host Bill O'Reilly the story of what happened at his son's funeral.

While I often find O'Reilly's politics and general manner unpalatable, he has admirably promised to lift Snyder's burden by paying the legal fees himself, saying on Tuesday night's O'Reilly Factor that this was an "outrage," and adding:
"I will pay Mr. Snyder's obligation. I am not going to let this injustice stand... It's obvious they were disturbing the peace by disrupting the funeral. They should have been arrested, but our system is so screwed up, so screwed up, that loons are allowed to run wild. Snyder is fighting the good fight, and he is taking his case to the Supreme Court as he should. We are behind him 100 percent."

Meanwhile a grass-roots effort to support Snyder has flourished, and offers continue to roll-in to help with further legal costs. Snyder's attorney, Sean Summers, has said that the "thousands" of offers of donations Albert Snyder has received from the public will soon be able to cover the fees connected with the upcoming Supreme Court case.

From a personal perspective, I am acutely aware that we can not pick and choose which person's free speech it is that we protect based on what suits us, or what seems to adhere to a common sense of decency, even. The Phelps family's "God Hates Fags" brand of vitriol is truly abhorrent and the messages they peddle about as mean spirited as it is possible to be.

But that does not mean that their right to free speech should not be protected. The question is how far that free speech extends to protect them while they intentionally inflict emotional distress on others through their actions.

This is one of the key issues that will be put before the Supreme Court when they take on the case in October.
Related Links:

• I Support Al Snyder in His Fight Against Westboro Baptists - Connect on Facebook

Read more: army, soldiers, free speech, civil rights, lgbt rights, fred phelps, westboro baptists

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90 years old, political gay activist, hosting two web sites, one personal: http://www.red-jos.net one shared with my partner, 94-year-old Ken Lovett: http://www.josken.net and also this blog. The blog now has an alphabetical index: http://www.red-jos.net/alpha3.htm