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.