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.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!”
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.
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.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.
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.
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.