Fred Phelps and his followers in the Westboro Baptist Church are a bunch of thoughtless, homophobic freaks whose actions shame all Americans. The Supreme Court will decide this summer whether or not that behavior is protected by the First Amendment.
To recap: Phelps and his twisted followers at the Westboro Baptist Church really, really, really, really, really hate LGBT people, and all their allies. Like, a lot. Think of as much as you hate anyone, then expand it to everyone in the world and multiple it by infinity. Then you might being to approach the soul-destroying, spittle-laced, deep-seating antipathy with which the WBC regards the rest of the world. It's ugly.
Their theology, such as it is, is that their hatred of LGBT people and everyone else that isn't actively trying to eliminate LGBT people from the world we share is merely a reflection of what their otherwise-loving God feels for his own creation. They express this hatred by blaming everything on the mere existence and even minimal tolerance of LGBT people: but, mostly, they achieved their greatest media successes (because, beyond celebrating the afterlife in heaven, it's all about the camera time for these pricks) by protesting, as seen above, at the funerals of soldiers killed in action in Iraq and Afghanistan. Their nauseating, hate-filled and inappropriate signage (to which they often add the ever-lovely "God Hates F***" if they can work it in and still get the camera shot) and shouting convinced 40 states to outlaw such funeral protests and sparked a counter-protest movement in which bikers showed up at funerals to block the Phelps contingent with flags and roaring engines.
One father, though, wasn't content with just that. Albert Snyder's son, Michael, was killed in Iraq and Snyder's funeral was inundated with Phelps and his disgusting sycophants, causing exactly the amount of extra pain and emotional distress Phelps intended.
A sampling of the signs carried at Snyder's 2006 funeral at St. John's Catholic Church in Westminster, Md., included "God Hates the USA/Thank God for 9/11," "Semper Fi Fags," "Thank God for Dead Soldiers" and "Priests Rape Boys." The demonstrators abided by the law and stayed away from the funeral itself.
Phelps said they didn't choose Snyder's funeral for any particular reason; Albert Snyder argued that Phelps' promotional materials denigrated his family and son by name.
So, Snyder sued Fred Phelps for emotional distress, invasion of privacy and the violation of Snyder's right to peaceful assembly and freedom of religion. The jury, unsurprisingly, ruled in Snyder's favor and awarded him a Phelps-bankrupting award of $10 million; the judge cut it to $5 million; and the appeals court overturned the whole thing on first amendment grounds.
The Supreme Court will hear the case this summer, and amicus briefs are due tomorrow. Forty-two members of Congress and 48 states support Snyder. For Virginia residents, it might come as no surprise that their hyper-conservative attorney general, Ken Cucinelli, is supporting Phelps in this case.
Brian Gottstein, a spokesman for Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli (R), said that the state has a law against funeral protests and that his office fears the precedent that Snyder's case could set.
"We do not think that regulation of speech through vague common-law torts, like intentional infliction of emotional distress, strikes the proper balance between free speech and avoiding the unconscionable disruption of funerals," Gottstein said.
Way to go, Virginia!
To add insult to injury, the appeals court has order Snyder to pay Phelps' legal fees to the tune of $16,500 despite having prevailed in the lower courts.
Phelps' actions are, indeed, unconscionable and Albert Snyder and his family are the obvious sentimental favorites in this particular Supreme Court fight. But, some lawyers think that the law might indeed be obviously on Phelps' side.
George Washington University law professor Daniel J. Solove, the author of "Understanding Privacy," said he finds it "perplexing" that the justices took the case. The message of Phelps and his followers is "stupid and obnoxious," Solove said, but seems to fit squarely into the kind of unpopular speech that the Constitution protects.
The question the Supreme Court will have to decide is whether Snyder's rights to privacy, religions and assembly are trumped by Phelps' right to be a loud, bigoted evil prick. Then again, this is America.
High Court: Justices To Consider 'Funeral Protests' In Free-Speech Case [Washington Post]