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Phelps Liable for $10.9 Million

Timothy Kincaid

October 31st, 2007

phelps.jpgRueters is reporting that a jury ordered Westboro Baptist Church to pay the family of a serviceman whose burial service was picketed by Phelp’s church.

The jury in federal court determined that the Westboro Baptist Church based in Topeka, and three of its principals had invaded the privacy of the dead man’s family and inflicted emotional distress when they protested at his funeral last year.

This bothers me in a few ways.

First, I am in favor of protected speech, even vile disgusting speech like that of Fred Phelps and his family. While there is no question that this celebration of the poor kid’s death was disturbing, I don’t like the precedent this sets. Perhaps as I hear more about the details – such as whether the protest was on public property or at a private funeral home – I may reconsider. But I recognize that my speech could be unwelcome and distressing to anti-gay activists or devoutly religious bigots.

Second, I can’t help but wonder if the outcome would have been different had Westboro been picketing a gay person’s death. I somehow suspect that the family of the serviceman was held by the jury to be more deserving. Perhaps I’m cynical, but I doubt they would have given $2.9 million to a grieving same-sex spouse.

UPDATE: The final award was much more:

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 privacy loss and $2 million for distress.



Joe Brummer
October 31st, 2007 | LINK

On your first point, I disagree. I support the first amendment fully. It states the government has no right to control your speech. It says nothing about other citizens claiming loss from your speech. I like the message this sends. It says that you can say what you want and the government can do nothing, but that everyday folks still have power enough to take a stand on speech that is offensive.

Keep in mind, free speech laws only stop the government from silencing you. Other citizens have the right to silence you (if they can) Free speech does not mean that you can say anything you want without repercussion. That isn’t the case and this case proves that, thankfully.

On your second point, I agree fully. I bet this would be different if it was a gay person’s funeral, say…Matt Shepard?

October 31st, 2007 | LINK

Weren’t Phelps and co. protesting gay funerals way before they protested a military one? And didn’t the outcry come only after he started to protest military funerals?

November 1st, 2007 | LINK

Whether or not this verdict was appropriate does not hinge on how it might have been changed by the nature of the deceased.

Joe Brummer is correct. This case is not about freedom of speech. The Phelps clan can say whatever they want about gays, the United States, and the military that they want. What this verdict says is they can’t stand outside a funeral and gloat over the corpse while the family grieves.


the poster “Allahpundit” gives his brief legal analysis of the Phelps’ appeal:

“The question on appeal will be whether the First Amendment protects Phelps from the IIED [Intential Infliction of Emotional Distress] claim, with the Falwell case, which also involved IIED, sure to be cited as precedent. In that case Larry Flynt’s editorial cartoon about Falwell was ruled to be protected speech, but only because Falwell was a “public figure” for First Amendment purposes, which the Snyder family likely is not. The Court’s reasoning was that people have to be free to criticize public figures in order to engage in public debate; otherwise they’d live in fear of being hit with an IIED suit every time they said something harsh. Whether they need the same freedom to criticize the war by holding “God Hates Fags” signs outside a soldier’s funeral is another matter.”

Of course in the Falwell case the Flynt cartoon was parody; the WBC’s protests are not. I, like Allahpundit, see little chance of the Phelps’ appeal being a success.

November 3rd, 2007 | LINK

Taking the Phelps gang to court is a fitting way to deal with them. After all, their harrassment historically has taken two forms. One has been obnoxious protests. For example, they protested a diner in Kansas where a lesbian worked until I believe she quit.

The other thing they have done is taken people to court. Fred Phelps filed so many frivilous lawsuits that he was disbarred and banned from the Federal Courts. Unfortunately, many of his brood have become lawyers and run a family law firm cum church.

So a devastating lawsuit over one of their obnoxious harrassing protests seems a fitting way to bring them down. Maybe this soldier’s father can force them to sell the church and all the surrounding homes that are owned by the family.

David D.
November 7th, 2007 | LINK

Tim is right on his first point, I believe. As the USA sinks further into a police state mentality, people who don’t have limitless financial resources to fight a lawsuit will have a tendency to be quiet, to not say what needs to be said. Fred Phelps and followers are arguably hairballs of first rank, but if they are silenced by the system, so too will we.
The logical result of all of this can be seen in eastern Europe where dark and evil forces have crushed the spirit out of people for a century: they get drunk and stay drunk. Any opposition to the status quo is quickly snuffed out. After generations of this oppression they are still unable to function.
Our future as a nation in the face of these court rulings is very bleak. Do you disagree? Fine. I’ll sue you into oblivion. It’s a free country.

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