Soldier Funeral Protesters Lose Big

The religious nuts who have been going around the country picketing the funerals of soldiers killed in Iraq have been hit with an $11 million civil judgment.

A Baltimore federal jury awarded nearly $11 million Wednesday to the father of a Marine killed in Iraq, deciding that the family’s privacy had been invaded by a Kansas church whose members waved anti-gay signs at the funeral. It was the first-ever verdict against Westboro Baptist Church, a fundamentalist Christian group based in Topeka that has protested military funerals across the country with placards bearing shock-value messages such as “Thank God for dead soldiers.” They contend that the deaths are punishment for America’s tolerance of homosexuality and of gays in the military.


The compensatory damage award alone, $2.9 million, was nearly triple the net worth of Westboro and the three members on trial, their attorney said.

Fred W. Phelps Sr., Westboro’s founder, vowed to appeal to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit, in Richmond, Va. “It’s going to be reversed in five minutes,” he said. This case, he added, “will elevate me to something important,” as it draws more publicity to his cause.


Some legal experts said the judgment could be a setback for those who believe in broad free-speech protections. “I think when speech is a matter of public concern it still has to be protected, even when by social standards it is extraordinarily rude and outrageous,” said UCLA law professor Eugene Volokh.

University of Maryland law professor Mark Graber said the size of award, which included $8 million in punitive damages, could have a chilling effect on speech. “This was in a public space,” Graber said “While the actions are reprehensible, the First Amendment protects a lot that’s reprehensible.”

I tend to agree with Volokh and Graber here: Given that this was a public place, Phelps and his loathsome horde have a right to assemble and voice their opinions. Still, the jury’s instinct is understandable. Surely, grieving families have a right to bury their dead without being accosted by these vermin.

Perhaps this is the answer:

Alarmed by Westboro protests, at least 22 states have proposed or enacted laws to limit the rights of protesters at funerals. Only months after Matthew Snyder’s death, Maryland passed a law prohibiting targeted picketing within 300 feet of a funeral, burial, memorial service or funeral procession.

While the right to hold unpopular ideas is absolute, the courts have long ruled that the state has the right to impose reasonable restrictions on the time, place, and manner in which those ideas are communicated. I would think protecting the privacy of mourners at a funeral would fall into the category of reasonableness.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. markm says:


  2. John Burgess says:

    While I certainly sympathize with the mourners, I suspect this verdict is going to be overturned. ‘Reasonableness’ is a foggy standard.

  3. yetanotherjohn says:

    About a year ago I went to a funeral in a realtively small western town (about 50K people). As the funeral procession went from the church to the grave yard, people would pull their car over, stop and take off their hat, etc. The funeral was for a local rancher, but by no means a local celebrity or big shot. In short, they showed an act of respect for someone that they likely did not know or at least know well. Not everyone showed respect like this (I would estimate about 25%), but there were enough that I noticed and commented on it.

    Assuming the facts are right (public space) and absent other facts that are recognized to limit free speech (time, manner, place or inciting to riot), this is likely to be over turned. What is really sad about this is if the people at the funeral had turned en masse, charged the protestors and started a riot, then the charges might have been upheld as the ‘free speech’ could have been seen as an incitement to riot and thus not protected. We could have had a new example of “yelling fire in a crowded theater”, “yelling God wanted your son to die because the military tolerates gays at a funeral”.

    What is even sadder for Phelps is if he even bothered to read the Bible he would find that Jesus was very tolerant of those who sinned (corrupt tax collectors, prostitutes, adulterers, thieves, etc) but very intolerant of hypocrites. Protesting at the funeral is not a way to show love to the sinner while you hate the sin or to win people over to Christ by showing them that you have been set apart by your actions. Phelps has been set apart by his actions, but not in a good way.

  4. Richard Gardner says:

    While Phelps is often portrayed as a rural yokel, he was a lawyer specializing in Civil Rights Law in the 60-70s. He became a minister after disbarment (for perjury). He was also active in the Kansas State Democratic Party. He knows how the law and government work, and knows how to use that to his favor. This is not the last we have heard of this loathsome group.

  5. Steve says:

    What is even sadder for Phelps is if he even bothered to read the Bible he would find that Jesus was very tolerant of those who sinned (corrupt tax collectors, prostitutes, adulterers, thieves, etc) but very intolerant of hypocrites.

    I’m sorry, Jesus was intolerant of all sin and tolerant of all repentant sinners. He had Pharisee friends and followers. He was intolerant of cheating, lying, stealing, hypocrisy and oppression of the poor. He was tolerant of people but told all of them to stop sinning. (Luke 5:31,32; John 8:11) Jesus knew that without repentance we will eventually all turn into that which we do.

    If Mr. Phelps does not repent he will be judged for his use of scripture to promote his own prejudices just as the Pharisees will be for using scripture to promote themselves to the detriment of others. Jesus hates both sins but loves both sinners.