Fred Phelps | Military | News | Shirley Phelps-Roper

Slain Soldier's Father Awarded $11 Million in Westboro Baptist Case

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After deliberating for over a day, a jury today awarded Albert Snyder $11 million in a case he brought against Rev. Fred Phelps' Westboro Baptist Church after the church picketed the funeral of his son, who was slain in a vehicle accident in Anbar province in Iraq. It's the first case brought against the church for their protests at military funerals. Westboro Baptist claims that U.S. military deaths are God's punishment for a nation that tolerates homosexuals.

PhelpsThe Baltimore Sun reports: "In June 2006, Snyder sued the tight-knit fundamentalist Christian church and three of its members individually. The father argued that Westboro's demonstrations exacerbated his pain and suffering in March 2006 while he mourned the death of his only son. Specifically, he charged that they violated his privacy, intentionally inflicted emotional harm and engaged in a conspiracy to carry out their activities. The jury decided in Snyder's favor on every count. The church and its members maintained that they did nothing wrong. They based their legal defense on the First Amendment, arguing that their protests were constitutionally protected. Their attorneys told jurors yesterday that Westboro members were expressing closely held religious beliefs about an immoral society, including the military, that has endorsed homosexuality."

$2.9 million is for compensatory damages, and was awarded early today. The jury came back later this afternoon and awarded an additional $6 million in punitive damages for invasion of privacy and $2 million for causing emotional distress.

Phelps (pictured above, today in Baltimore) has also recently renewed his push for a "Matthew Shepard in Hell" monument, picketed the funerals of victims of the Virginia Tech shootings, and picketed the Reverend Jerry Falwell's funeral, claiming he was a friend of gays.

Happy Halloween, you scary old zombie.

Father of slain Marine wins case against funeral protesters [baltimore sun]


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Comments

  1. I hope this opens a floodgate of suits against Phelps. At least he can be financially disabled.

    Posted by: MT | Oct 31, 2007 5:10:24 PM


  2. This will be overturned.

    Say what you want about Phelps but the very same free speech rights that allows this idiot and his family to spout off are also the very same free speech rights that we hold. Take away one and you take away both.

    Cue the hate blog comments....

    Posted by: yoshi | Oct 31, 2007 5:15:49 PM


  3. This is some of the best news I have heard all year. But the big question is, will Phelps and his band of crazies stop ruining the last moments families and friends have with fallen soldiers? Hopefully there will be a pile on of additional lawsuits. A family with a funeral pending can now get a restraining order based on this judgment.

    Posted by: Johnny Lane | Oct 31, 2007 5:17:57 PM


  4. Yoshi

    No one is saying that they can't speak. What was said is that they have to pay the consequence of their speaking. Scream fire in a theater causing a stampede and you will be sued and it will be upheld.

    Posted by: haha | Oct 31, 2007 5:22:55 PM


  5. I get it, HAHA! What you're saying is that in countries like China and Saudi Arabia, there really IS freedom of speech. It's just that the consequences in those places are imprisonment and death. But hey, at least they get to say what they want to, right?

    Posted by: Sami Jiries | Oct 31, 2007 5:39:10 PM


  6. Umm, no. What HAHA is saying is that people in the United States can be held accountable (by a jury) for the outcomes of their words and actions. Inflicting emotional distress isn't legal, just as sexual harrassment isn't. When words are used to intimidate people and a clear pattern of behavior has been established, the right to free speech comes up against other people's rights to feel safe and not endure hostile or hateful environments.

    More to the point: Fuck Phelps.

    Posted by: Paul | Oct 31, 2007 5:45:40 PM


  7. Unfortunately, it will slow Phelps down about as-much as it slowed OJ Simpson's golf game. Try to get a Court to enforce a legal judgment against a "church" (or family-cult in this case); plus there's thousands of ways to hide or protect assets while claiming "...the well's dry".

    It's a pity you can't imprison a debtor any-more.

    Posted by: Ted B. (Charging Rhino) | Oct 31, 2007 5:48:03 PM


  8. Ted B. that simply is not true. If it was the Catholic would have signed Summary Judgments on all of their sexual abuse lawsuits, avoid paying legal fees and told the Plaintiffs to go fish rather than settling and paying. Good lawyers can make Phelps' life a living hell in discovery depositions. And if he lies, and they can prove it, they can refer the case to the District Attorney for prosecution for perjury.

    Posted by: Johnny Lane | Oct 31, 2007 6:09:22 PM


  9. Sorry -- and it really pains me to say this, believe me -- but I agree with Yoshi's comment above.

    As despicable and disgusting as these cretins are ... this is a First Amendment issue - and I may not agree with what they have to say ... but I must defend their right to say it.

    That's what Freedom is all about.


    Posted by: Chapeau | Oct 31, 2007 6:20:57 PM


  10. This may slow them down but it will probably be overturned on appeal, otherwise, anyone can claim emotional distress over anything said. For example, str8 people mentioned on a gay blog could sue for emotional distress because they would rather not be associated with homosexuals, etc. Don't play with legal fire.

    Posted by: anon (gmail.com) | Oct 31, 2007 6:23:31 PM


  11. I'd be interested in seeing if the Phelps appeal. Yes, it inflicted emotional distress on the father, but if that argument is allowed to go too far, oversensitive vegans can sue steak-eaters for saying they like eating dead cow. The Phelps' message wasn't directed at the family of the fallen soldier, but at the media whom they knew would attend their rally.

    I don't like what the Phelps have to say any more than you guys do, but I do see some blurriness here. I think they could make a strong case on appeal. There isn't any clear precedent that I'm aware of for a patently offensive religious group being prosecuted for their beliefs, so there is a decent chance that the appeal will be played out and the SCOTUS may have to eventually rule on this.

    Personally, I'd love nothing more than to have all religious institutions muzzled, but I hold the Constitution as more important than my individual opinion, so I'll always err on the side of protecting rights instead of taking them away. Hopefully the SCOTUS will eventually be able to clear this issue up for us.

    I'm trying to decide what would be better: Roberts dooming his court's reputation by protecting the Phelps' hatemongering under the First Amendment, thus pissing off the Christian right that hates Pehlps or shutting down Phelps and others' offensive religious bullshit. Both would make me happy to an extent.

    Posted by: Iko | Oct 31, 2007 6:24:22 PM


  12. Actually its quiye a brillant case.

    Phelps and his minions have cowered behind the first admendment and Free Speech for years for spewing theor messages of hate, tolerence and in some cases approval of violent acts. This case without stepping on their First Admendment rights isn's punishing them for what they did and saud. But is punishing them for the pain and suffering that they casused someone specific with their words. They had the freedon to spout their hate and that can;t be contested. But they are being held accountable for what it had done to someone.

    IMO more lawsuits like this should be brought forward and the WBC should literally be bled dry and bankrupted into oblivion.

    Posted by: Wolf | Oct 31, 2007 6:24:43 PM


  13. Don't hate me BUT I think that Phelps & Co. are important to the gay movement as they unmask the inhuman hate behind the fundementalists attack on us. Either one reviles his sickness or reveals their own.

    Posted by: mike | Oct 31, 2007 8:24:08 PM


  14. ps: Yoshi's comments are spot on. The first amendment is a bitch. But we need her.

    pps: Phelps has no "minions", just an inbred clan the size of a Rob Zombie movie cast.

    Posted by: mike | Oct 31, 2007 8:29:19 PM


  15. The Phelps cult is possibly one of the most noxious and disgusting groups of people in this country today. I am absolutely pro-First Amendment, and I am surprised they actually got this judgement.

    However, I have to say they are really close to the line in terms of shouting fire in a crowded theater. There are limits on speech, very few, but drawn very appropriately by the court. There must be a very high burden to get there in my opinion, but Phelps and crew are on that cusp. They advocate violence. They directly picket soldiers' funerals (I can't even begin to imagine the sick mindset that leads one to that action) but the way they go about it may be inciting families beyond hurt feelings and bewilderment at the insanity of the Phelps garbage. Maybe it's not simple hate-speech, which is clearly protected, no matter how foul. Anyway, it is an interesting question, and no matter whether the millions ever get paid out, at least the bastards have to pony up a hell of a lot of legal fees to defend themselves!

    Posted by: So Left I'm Right | Oct 31, 2007 10:59:07 PM


  16. Allow me to pick a few nits for a moment.

    The First Amendment protects speech from censorship or interference by the government. There is no governmental censorship of Phelps and his clan here. This was a private action for intentionally inflicting pain and emotional distress on the grieving family.

    Second, that word "intentionally" is key. We're not on some slippery slope towards steak-eaters getting sued by vegans, because no reasonable person (and no reasonable jury) would ever believe that someone eats steak with the intent of traumatizing the poor vegan.

    But apparently it wasn't hard for a jury to decide that Phelps' actions were so outrageous here that he could have only acted with the intent to shock and offend. No government censored Phelps, but no one is going to protect him from the consequences of his actions, either.

    I think this was the right outcome.

    Posted by: About time | Nov 1, 2007 1:24:10 AM


  17. It will be overturned. It's going to be up to the cities, towns and states to create laws preventing such behavior at close proximity to a funeral service, in the same way protests at Family Planning Clinics have to be a certain distance away from those entering who seek an abortion.

    Posted by: Patrick | Nov 1, 2007 8:57:04 AM


  18. It will be overturned. It's going to be up to the cities, towns and states to create laws preventing such behavior at close proximity to a funeral service, in the same way protests at Family Planning Clinics have to be a certain distance away from those entering who seek an abortion.

    Posted by: Patrick | Nov 1, 2007 8:58:21 AM


  19. These particular "christians" are nothing more than theological thugs and anarchist – they are evil incarnate. The only difference between them and Islamic Fascists is the type of bomb they’re throwing. The intent is the same, to murder freedom of thought and more importantly freedom from religion. All they want is attention for their sick form of bigotry and hate. And why shouldn’t they be criminally prosecuted for “hate” crimes against humanity??? Here are a couple of quotes that say it precisely: "People demand freedom of speech to make up for the freedom of thought, which they avoid." Søren Aabye Kierkegaard and "...When compared with the suppression of anarchy every other question sinks into insignificance. The anarchist is the enemy of humanity, the enemy of all mankind, and his is a deeper degree of criminality than any other." Theodore Roosevelt, 1908.

    When it really comes down to it all these theological anarchists want is attention and media time for their sick and hideous beliefs? There is no biblical basis for their hateful ways – Christ and the bible say over and over throughout the scriptures to hate the sin not the sinner. Christ life was an example of UNCONDITIONAL tolerance, love and compassion for all of mankind, friend and foe. What of these aspects of Christianity do they not get?

    Two major forms of non-atheism exist in the world: theism and deism. Neither of these basis for true spiritual belief suggest, infer or dictate hateful, uncompassionate interaction between humans. The two greatest gifts from God are “Free Will” and “Eternal Life.” These clowns would remove your free will at the point of a gun and set themselves up as the judges of who will have eternal life. Enough Say???

    Posted by: Bill | Nov 1, 2007 3:52:03 PM


  20. Fred Phelps is so unspeakably awful a human being that it sickens me that he is the protagonist at the center of this First Amendment saga. But the facts are the facts, and most of your all's comments are just really missing the point here.

    First of all, it's nonsensical to suggest that this is NOT a First Amendment issue. The plaintiffs are alleging that Phelps and his followers spoke in a way that was injurious to them, and they're asking for government-enforced restitution. The effect of which is to say the form of speech in question is no longer protected under First Amendment guarantees. It's not FREE if you cannot do it without criminal or civil penalty.

    Second, there are no violations of criminal laws at issue here, at least not insofar as the media have reported. The demonstration was lawful and held on public property. The protesters did not invade the family's or other mourners' private physical space.

    SO, third, what this leaves is a claim that another's speech--despite its being otherwise lawful--can be so emotionally disturbing, so inherently objectionable to someone else on its substance alone as to be a cause for awarding (exorbitant) compensatory and punitive damages.

    With all due and HUGE sympathy for the families who are subjected to these hateful people's shameful and plainly un-Christian behavior, what they are essentially saying is that Fred Phelps should be punished financially because he hurt somebody else's feelings.

    That is not a standard for measuring free speech rights that any of us should want to see advanced in this country.

    It reminds me of the flap a month or so ago over the Folsom Street Fair poster with the photo that offended some religionists because it mimicked DaVinci's "The Last Supper." I have no doubt it deeply disturbed some people, including all the men at the Concerned Women for America. Does that mean THEY have the right to sue for and collect damages? If not, why not? Because it's not reasonable for them to be offended the way it is for the dead soldier's family? Says who? Do we really want our courts in the business of determining whose feelings can be hurt with impunity and whose cannot?

    Step back and look at the situation objectively, and I think you'll see this outcome for what it is: an attack on free speech.

    Posted by: HermesDC | Nov 1, 2007 4:54:42 PM


  21. As lovely as free speech is (and it is), surely a father should be able to bury his son without having to deal with Phelps' bullshit?

    Posted by: Darren | Nov 1, 2007 6:03:48 PM


  22. As lovely as free speech is (and it is), surely a father should be able to bury his son without having to deal with Phelps' bullshit?

    Posted by: Darren | Nov 1, 2007 6:04:13 PM


  23. As much as those here who liked the ruling have morality on their side, the others, such as HermesDC are correct that the ruling was a results oriented emotional stab at helping the "victims" of the case rather than a rational ruling on the law. Juries are horrible at this sort of thing, which is why so many tort cases get settled before trial. Juries just react emotionally to the sob story in question and figure the plaintiffs are more deserving of the money than the defendants. John Edwards made his fortune this way. The judge in this case, as in most tort cases, was probably selected in advance by the plaintiffs because they would be sympathetic. Once this goes into appeal the judgment will be overturned because there are just too many nightmares contained in the precedent. Remember that the emotional distress claim is in proportion to the award (restitution), so if you say something unkind you could get sued for $1000 instead of a million. (Wouldn't this be fun in small claims!) Enough of this and you'll wish Phelps had won.

    Now, what is an example of causing emotional distress that would pass legal muster? Acts like cross-burnings and vandalism such as anti-semitic graffiti would qualify. Normally, emotional distress is bundled up into a larger case and rarely the sole claim. The surgeon screws up and the patient dies and the family sues for malpractice and emotional distress (or harm).

    Posted by: anon (gmail.com) | Nov 2, 2007 1:13:58 AM


  24. I don't see this outcome as an attack on free speech. Nor is it a step towards a world where people collect damages for hurt feelings. That's a bit overblown.

    I also don't think it's fair to say that Phelps was being penalized for his beliefs, or for the substance of his speech alone. A protest and disruption at your child's funeral would be unwelcome no matter what the content of the speech.

    Besides, the legal standard here isn't just whether the grieving family was offended by Phelps, and it isn't even just whether Phelps did it to them intentionally. Rather, it's whether Phelp's intentionally offensive behavior was so shocking and "outrageous" that no reasonable member of the community could excuse it.

    And that's exactly who decided this case. A jury of Phelp's peers -- not the court. That jury heard Phelp's freedom of speech defense, but also had to balance that against freedoms held by the grieving family -- the right to privacy, the right to be left alone, the right to associate with their friends and loved ones, the right to peaceably assemble to lay their son to rest. Pick a few.

    I'm sure that once the jury stepped back and looked at the situation objectively, they saw this case for what it is: depraved and inhumane behavior towards fellow human beings that pointlessly caused unnecessary grief and harm.

    Although the damage award is a bit high, I think the jury got the right outcome. I'm not worried about the First Amendment -- I think it's still in good hands here. Maybe they
    are horrible at it, but who is going to be any better? Bush's judicial appointees?

    Posted by: about time | Nov 2, 2007 1:21:07 AM


  25. This Westboro Baptist church say they hates the Gay-Community. But they also hate African-Americans, Canada, Sweden, the Fire Department of NY, victims of 911, other Christian Churches, The Pope, Judaism, America, Our American Troops, and the list goes on and on. Many of the groups they despise are specifically named on their hate propaganda, picket signs, and their many websites. They not only hate, but wish death on all that they abhor.
    This sick, so called church spreads its hate through picketing in our streets, provoking attacks, with abusive vulgar language, attempting to create a confrontation.
    This is not about protesting, this is about a life of hate. They are not peaceful. They are not a "church". They go after any thing that can get them in the news. I am all for protest when there is a reason, I have been in many. This group will protest anything to get its face on TV or in the news. It is about an old man lost in the darkness of hate, but will put his six year old grandson in danger to save himself. They protest at the funerals of our troops. Do we have a real need to protest at any funeral? Is that a real Freedom?
    The city of Topeka, the state of Kansas and the U.S. at large, its citizens and their Churches, schools and events are all held hostage by this "hate group" - always at the tax payer's expense.

    Posted by: Cam | Nov 2, 2007 7:55:02 PM


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