There should be a special place in hell for anyone who would elect to torment a grieving family as they prepare to lay a child to rest.
Inconceivably, it was members of a so-called church, the Kansas based Westboro Baptist Church, who did just that.
These church goers and self-proclaimed followers of God have interpreted the Bible to mean that they should protest American tolerance of homosexuality at military funerals and other locations.
As Marine Lance Cpl. Matthew Snyder was being mourned at a Maryland church, a short distance away these “religious” men and women carried signs that read "God Hates the USA," "Fag troops" and "Pope in hell."
Instead of offering Christian compassion for a family in their darkest hour, these churchgoers offered hate.
The pastor of the church, Fred Phelps, later posted on his church’s website that Snyder’s father Albert had "taught Matthew to defy his creator" and "raised him for the devil."
Albert Snyder subsequently sued Phelps and his followers for invasion of privacy, intentional infliction of emotional distress and civil conspiracy. Snyder won and was initially awarded a judgment of $10 million.
After Phelps appealed, the judgment was reversed by the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond and Snyder was ordered to pay Phelps’ legal fees. The case is now headed to the Supreme Court.
This case is significant because it could alter the definition of free speech in this country. The Supreme Court must decide if hateful speech will be tolerated even if it inflicts emotional distress.
In overturning the initial judgment, the appeals court found that Phelps and his followers had obeyed local ordinances and had not directly confronted the family. The court further found that the signs and Internet postings by the group were simply "hyperbolic and imaginative rhetoric intended to spark debate.”
In short, the court ruled that the Snyder’s had not been subjected to any real harm because “No reasonable reader could interpret any of these signs as asserting actual and objectively verifiable facts about Snyder or his son.”
By treating the case as a defamation case, the appeals court found that the First Amendment protected the reprehensible actions of Phelps and his church. The court basically ignored the fact that Snyder’s family was emotionally distressed by the Westboro church protest because they essentially classified Snyder and his family as “public figures.”
In the infamous 1988 case of Hustler vs. Falwell, the court ruled that a public figure could not win in an infliction of emotional distress action. The basic idea was that a person, by living in the public eye, was fair game.
Phelps successfully argued in appeals court that the funeral was a public event essentially because Snyder had granted media interviews and could therefore be classified as a public figure.
If the court finds Snyder and his family were de facto public figures at the time of the funeral, they may choose to uphold the appeals court ruling. If the Snyders are considered to be private individuals, then the court must decide if free speech takes precedent over emotional distress.
What Phelps and his followers did to the Snyders went beyond "hyperbolic and imaginative rhetoric.” It was a vicious and hateful attack against a grieving family. Hopefully the Supreme Court will focus on the emotional distress aspect of the case instead of allowing such repugnant behavior to go unpunished under the guise of free speech.
Kristi Reed is a reporter for the Barrow Journal. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Joe, as far as I know there is no such law. Although, some politician might come up with an idea for one. I'm almost sure you are aware that, Supreme Court Justice, Oliver Wendell Holmes made the statement in his day. But supreme court justices' comments are not the rule of law.