Is it a sex blog? A mommy blog? A bitch & moan blog? Um, . . . yeah. This is my place to be totally honest. In my real life, I feel like I'm always lying to somebody about something. Here, I am totally honest. Brutally so. However, no matter what bad things I say about my kids, I adore them and would never ever really, say, sell them on Ebay. The husband, often referred to as Spousehole, is another story. Oh yeah - if you are under 18 (or if you are my husband), please leave now.

Friday, November 2, 2007

Funeral Protesters Despicable, But Have 1st Amendment Rights

I'm sure you've all heard this story, about Fred Phelps' Kansas church that protests at the funerals of soldiers killed in Iraq and Afghanistan. Members of the Westboro Baptist Church maintain that God is punishing the United States, killing and maiming troops, because the country tolerates homosexuality. They have gained much notoriety for their funeral protests over almost 20 years. The church first gained national attention when they picketed the funeral of Matthew Shepard, a Wyoming student who was murdered in 1998 for being gay. They have also picketed the funerals of Frank Sinatra and Bill Clinton's mother, celebrated the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, as an act of God's wrath, and have even targeted Santa Claus and the Ku Klux Klan. More recently, they carry signs at soldiers' funerals that say things such as "Thank God for IEDs" and "God Hates Fags."

The family of Lance Corporal Matthew Snyder, killed in a vehicle crash in Anbar Province, sued the church, Phelps, and his two adult daughters for intentional infliction of emotional distress for picketing Snyder's funeral carrying placards with virulent anti-gay messages and ones that said "Thank God for Dead Soldiers" and "God Hates You." A jury awarded Snyder's family $10.9 millon in damages for invasion of privacy and intentional infliction of emotional distress.

I believe the actions of Phelps and his church (whose 75 members are drawn mainly from Phelps' family) are reprehensible. Their anti-gay bigotry is highly unChristian, in my opinion, and to use that bigotry to torment the families and friends of soldiers killed in service of their country is vile and disgusting. Their targeting of soldiers' funerals gives them the publicity they seek - that's why they do it.

While I believe the actions of members of Westboro Baptist Church are shameful and ignorant, I also must defend their right to assemble and speak. What they have to say is horribly disgusting, but they have a right to say it. Since their diatribes are against the government and society in general, their First Amendment rights fully apply.

They followed the law, which in Maryland required them to stay 1000 feet from the funeral site. They were on public property. Yes their actions were offensive and caused pain to Snyder's family. But those actions constitute an exercise of their rights to speech and religion and are constitutionally protected.

The author of the First Amendment, James Madison, noted that the purpose of the Amendment was to protect the minority against the majority. This is true if the minority is a foaming-at-the-mouth bigoted extremist. On these grounds, I expect the Snyder vs. Phelps verdict will be overturned on appeal to the 4th Circuit.

What do you think?

Edit: Please note that the courts have limited the right to sue others who are acting to exercise their constitutional rights. Because it is the government's alleged tolerance of homosexuality that the Westboro church members are protesting, they are acting in furtherance of exercising their First Amendment rights when protesting. That they also impact on individuals (the deceased's family and friends) is likely to be found by the 4th Circuit to not be outweighed by the fact that the Westboro group is exercising a constitutional right. A suit like this might be considered a form of a SLAPP (Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation). Generally, a "SLAPP" is a (1) civil complaint or counterclaim; (2) filed against individuals or organizations; (3) arising from their communications to government or speech on an issue of public interest or concern. These suits almost always fail as the defendants are found to exercising their right to free speech. They generally only succeed if the speech is found to be inciting or false.

12 comments:

crse said...

Ok, I agree that they perhaps should not be arrested. Which is why the idea of a civil suit is so attractive. Sure you didnt break the law but you caused extreme emotional distress. Sort of like their own personal "asshole tax". Of course Im kind of ignorant about the law buddy so id defer to your knowledge....

Osbasso said...

I would agree with crse. Obviously not a criminal offense, but a civil one. I don't know the ins and outs of that stuff, but if there's a way to stick it to them, then I'm all for it.

I had the "opportunity" to see them up close and personal when they came to Montana to protest because we're apparently a "gay-friendly" state. Picketed the Catholic Church, the Supreme Court and one of the state universities. Reaction to them was either rage or ridicule. Not much in between.

Joe Flirt said...

The right to Free Speech does not include the right to violate others rights.

The Supreme Court held in Chaplinsky v. New Hampshire (1942) that it was constitutional to hold persons responsible when their words or actions were meant to cause or provoke a reasonable person to want to retaliate.

And again in Cox v. Louisiana (1965), the court pointed out in its decision that the 1st Ammendment right to speech and assembly P. 554 . (c) The rights of free speech and assembly do not mean that everyone may address a group at any public place at any time. Pp. 554-555 . (d) Communication of ideas by picketing and marching on streets is not afforded the same kind of protection under the First and Fourteenth Amendments as is pure speech. P. 555 .

So no, I don't think there is any way that these pathetic hate mongers are in the right, and I fully expect to courts to uphold the decision.

SoCal Sal said...

I agree that it total BS and they are in truly not acting in any way near the Christian moral philosophy, of which I will add, like it or not, is the philosophy this great country was founded on. PLEASE NOTE that I said Christian moral philosophy, not that you have to believe in and accept the Christian God.

And I agree that group should have been fined. Don’t get me started on lawyers.

As people currently interpret the 1st amendment, you have a point. I do not think and will never support that as a “free pass” to say anything you want, anytime, anywhere. I am sure that was not the intent. When your free speech encroaches on my right to life liberty and their pursuit of happiness, that is the line that should not be crossed. I should not have to have my life invaded, or distressed because you don’t agree with me or the government.

I think our current society has digressed a great deal in this area and it is sad that opposing views and philosophical differences are a means to confrontational conflict and just down right hateful mean spiritedness and even violence. That was surely not the intent of the founding fathers.

Ok, I guess that was my 5 cents worth. Thanks for the intellectual stimulation and a chance to voice this one man’s opinion. Have a nice weekend.

Trueself said...

When I lived in LOH, there were a couple of instances of this group showing up at funerals for soldiers killed in Iraq. I think the best thing that happened is that while these folks may have a right to their free speech, others used their right to assembly and free speech to line up along the road near the site of these funerals so that the family and friends were not witness to their despicable behavior. While I am certain that the deceased's loved ones were aware of the "protesters" and their presence they were also aware that their community was with them and supported them which I hope provided comfort to them.

Mr R Rabbit said...

Does America not have a law against inciting hatred? I know its been used several times here. A person has a right to express their views, but not to try and whip up hatred and violence against others while doing so.

not2shy said...

The legal situation is very different here in Britain, but the way I understand the 1st amendment is that it prevents the state from stopping someone expressing themselves. It doesn't protect them from civil responsibility if they do express themselves.

In this country their activity would be considered behaviour likely to cause a breach of the peace, and the police would tell them to leave and arrest them if they didn't. I prefer your system, but there are sometimes advantages to ours.

Rae said...

I don't think it will be overturned actually, mainly because they were on private property when they were protesting--and that is the biggest deal (although the media is making it more about the emotional distress for the family). I do think the damages will be reduced substantially though--judges just hate those punitive damages (except for in medical malpractice).

I agree they have the right to their free speech (as despicable as it is), but they better figure out a better place to do it rather than on private property.

And not2shy is right...the 1st amendment is a protection against the state infringing on the right of the people to free speech, not against civil repercussions when they piss someone off. :-)

Oddly I've been talking about this all week. I can't believe law school is good for something! :-)

craig andrew said...

You know, not fifty years ago those lunatics would have gotten the shit kicked out of them and the police would have turned a blind eye figuring justice had been served and the lunatics - regardless of how much money they had - would think twice before doing that again. The only thing different between now and then is that now the lawyers make money on the deal, and people with enough money can be as crazy as they want to, again and again, without any serious repercussions.

I don't know what I'm really saying, if anything, just a perspective.

George said...

We can't allow them into Canada .. they would have a field day because we allow gay and lesbian marriages. They would be allowed to protest but they could be segregated and kept well away from the scene they want to protest

ArtfulSub said...

Interesting. I'll have to dig up my photo of Al Gore hugging his good friend and campaign chairman the "Reverend" Fred Phelps.

Regarding SLAPPS, I'd make one point. It's not really about winning-or-losing at the end.

For the vast majority of us, the lawsuit in-and-of-itself is punishment. Time away from business and family. Unwanted travel. Lawyer fees. Etc...

Sure, we "WIN" at the end. But at what cost?

It's tempting to say Grrherhahahaha
when it happens to a neanderthal like Fred Phelps. But the sad truth is that it happens to decent people too.

TORT REFORM!!

Dates Bubbas said...

I don't know why it's any more acceptable than Don Imus calling basketball players nappy headed hos. There were all kinds of opportunities for civil lawsuits in that one. Just because the law says you can open your mouth doesn't mean that everything that comes out of it is protected so I'm with Joe Flirt.