Friday, November 02, 2007


Picketing funerals, and free speech

Albert Snyder has won his lawsuit against the Westboro Baptist Church loonies, and has been awarded almost $11 million:

The father of a marine killed in Iraq was awarded nearly $11 million in damages on Wednesday. A jury found leaders of a fundamentalist church had invaded the family’s privacy and inflicted emotional distress when they picketed the marine’s funeral.

The jury first awarded $2.9 million in compensatory damages. Later, it awarded $6 million in punitive damages for invasion of privacy and $2 million for causing emotional distress to the father, Albert Snyder of York, Pa.

Mr. Snyder sued the Westboro Baptist Church of Topeka, Kan., for unspecified monetary damages after its members demonstrated in March at the funeral of his son, Lance Cpl. Matthew Snyder, in Westminster, Md.

My first thought on this is, “Great! The nutjobs have been shown their place, and they can’t offensively get in the faces of grieving survivors like that!”

But then I worry, just a little. As Les Jenkins, of Stupid Evil Bastard, puts it:

However the case raises some troubling issues over where the right of Free Speech begins and ends. As much as I detest the Westboro Baptist morons I do think they have a right to protest if they so wish and I question the grounds on which this case was decided.

It goes without saying that some folks could argue that SEB itself is “offensive to a reasonable person” and I’ve written more than one entry that was critical of specific people not the least of which includes the Westboro Baptist church. As reprehensible as the actions of the Westboro people are, I’m not sure I see how they violated Snyder’s right to privacy and whether they had the intent to of inflicting emotional distress is also questionable. The idea that they can be sued simply because they were being disrespectful and saying things people don’t like is chilling to say the least. I wouldn’t be surprised to see this overturned on an appeal if the Westboro folks can afford to pursue it.

Yeah, that’s just it. We can’t tell people that they mayn’t say stupid, nasty things, without bringing into question everything that any of us says.

But as I think about it more, I think that I don’t think this is a straightforward free-speech issue. I disagree with Les on that point — the Westboro folks were invading the Snyder family’s privacy, as I see it, and that’s the difference. And my view (here’s where things get dicier) is that they did intend the “emotional distress” that they caused. They staged this stuff the way they did not just to make a point, but to make sure that the point was driven home by their methods.

But I am really worried about two things. First, the line we’re drawing here is a very fine one, and there’s a great danger of taking it too broadly (or drawing other, similar lines without sufficient care). I absolutely do not think that we should stop people from going to a public place and holding up signs and shouting “God hates fags!”, reprehensible though that be. (Besides: I don’t think they really accomplish anything for their cause by doing that. It says more about them, than it does about anything else.)

Second, I’m concerned about the money here. We have a general problem with huge civil penalties, and this isn’t helping. On the one hand, we need to make the penalties sufficient to deter the violations. On the other hand, does a family really deserve $3 million in compensation for having a bunch of idiots upset its funeral? $3 million, plus the punitive damages? It seems out of proportion.

So I cheer this result, and don't consider it a free-speech issue... but I tremble a little at the same time. I think the decision against the Westboro crowd was right, but we have to tread verrrrry carefully here.


Frisky070802 said...

As usual, I find myself in violent agreement with you.

Such huge civil penalties are like a lottery. Someone gets lucky, but it's not just them who should be. It's as if this should automatically be a class-action. As for billions of $$ from cigarette manufacturers, they should pay the public as a whole, but not one lucky plaintiff.

As for the privacy issues here, NPR was comparing this to the Skokie Nazis march of many years ago. My father resigned from the ACLU when they supported this, but I have to side with the ACLU on the side of free speech, when done appropriately. Funerals aren't appropriate venues.

scouter573 said...

It pays to remember that funerals are not public events nor are they usually held in public places. The front of the public library or City Hall is a public place and is suitable for public displays of political statements. Say any stupid thing you want (subject to libel, etc.). But when you show up at a wedding, a funeral, a birthday party, or the family dinner, you are in a private place and you play by the host's rules.

Now these protesters had to leave Kansas and travel to Pennsylvania. They specifically chose a funeral for a military man and chose to assert a political point. They could have chosen a public figure. They could have chosen a public venue. They could have written a letter to the editor. They could have called in to the Rush Limbaugh Show or invited the Press to their religious service. They could have staged their protest at the local City Hall, or Washington, DC, or even back in Kansas. But they chose a complete stranger in a remote town. These people knew exactly what they were doing.

The money was awarded by a jury and will probably be reduced on appeal, assuming there is an appeal. But what ever the amount of money, it will probably completely fail to stop or even slow their attempts to repeat the disgraceful actions.

This wasn't a case of free speech. It wasn't a poorly planned protest. It was a case of wanton disregard for the rights of others, a form of assault and battery with no remorse.

The Ridger, FCD said...

This is not a free speech issue. You don't get to go into your neighbor's house and harangue him, and then plead free speech when the cops come to arrest you for trespass.

This wasn't a public event. They weren't invited. Their right to say whatever they want doesn't entail a right to wherever they want to say it.

Frisky070802 said...

I think the point NPR was making, as was Barry, was that protesting at a funeral is closer to having a parade on main street than walking into someone's home is. I agree with the other posters that a funeral is a private affair and that these protesters should not have free rein to intrude on a very personal moment. At the same time, I agree with the original post in recognizing that this restraint is at least someplace along a slippery slope.

I think the clearest analogy is the cases of abortion protesters picketing in the vicinity of clinics. They can't go inside the clinic and protest, and perhaps they can't protest in the parking lot, but they can perhaps protest on the sidewalk in front of it. Who is to say that there should be a "zone of privacy" that would push them back 100 feet, 500 feet, 1/4 mile from the clinic? NPR's piece commented on the idea that these protesters could probably picket on the street outside the cemetery, but not by the gravesite. I find their picketing immensely distasteful, but I am hard-pressed to say that they should be further restricted or completely banned from the route from the funeral home or church to the cemetery -- just like I was hard-pressed to argue against the ACLU in the Skokie case.