Court Was Right To Allow Westboro Funeral Protests
Frivolous lawsuits, such as those that make healthcare costs skyrocket, put manufacturers out of business, and dissolve personal responsibility, not only threaten our liberty, but often erode America’s unique foundation — freedom of speech.
A case still garnering headlines is that of Albert Snyder, the father of a Marine killed in Iraq. Snyder brought suit against the Kansas-based Westboro Baptist Church in 2006 after some church members staged a demonstration at the funeral of his son, Matthew.
He sued because the demonstrators inflicted emotional distress on the family, invaded their privacy, attacked Matthew’s memory, and stripped him of his dignity. It was also claimed the protesters prevented family members from reaching closure.
The suit proceeded even though the protesters had followed the appropriate laws, checked in with police, and were 1,000 feet from the church. And Mr. Snyder admitted he couldn’t see the signs, only learning of the protesters’ message upon watching the news.
Yet in 2007, a federal jury awarded Snyder $11 million in damages. A Court of Appeals later overturned that decision, ordering Snyder to pay $16,510 in legal fees to the Church’s leader, Fred Phelps.
That caused an outpouring of support for Snyder, including FOX commentator Bill O’Reilly, who last year offered to pay the legal fees. (The case was further appealed to the Supreme Court).
While a nice gesture, O’Reilly missed the point.
By supporting Snyder’s lawsuit, he and many conservatives who often talk about “freedom” and “liberty” are, ironically, contributing to the loss of both.
Should attacking someone’s memory really be a crime?
Make no mistake. Phelps’ preaching during these protests is twisted and vulgar. Church members carry signs reading “Thank God for dead soldiers” and somehow think soldiers’ deaths are the result of God’s punishment for “America’s sins.”
But no matter how revolting these people are, and no matter how much salt is added to families’ wounds by hitting them at their lowest point — since parents should never have to bury a child — no court should entertain a lawsuit for hurt feelings.
Doing so is another step toward politically-correct “thought police.”
It also opens the door to free speech erosion, which, once ajar, never closes.
Obviously, there are exceptions. You can’t falsely yell “fire” or impersonate a police officer. But those are common-sense restrictions based on public safety.
Insulting someone doesn’t come close to meeting that threshold.
Repugnant beliefs, whether exhibited by the Westboro protesters or the KKK, isn’t, and shouldn’t, be a crime.
O’Reilly was way off on that point, too, saying that the protesters committed a crime by disturbing the peace.
When a well-respected media member makes that kind of irresponsible statement, it has negative consequences. Millions echoed O’Reilly’s belief, unaware that they too were incorrect.
First, if they had disturbed the peace, they should have been arrested. But they weren’t.
Second —and here’s where Bill should have known better — even if they had, that would have been a criminal case, not a civil one.
Minister Phelps’ speech was clearly political. Suing him is akin to suing a pro-lifer for showing a picture of a fetus to someone entering an abortion clinic. That person won’t be pleased, but suing the protester should never be an option.
The real issue is how such a frivolous case ever saw the light of day. And the jury award? Eleven million dollars because a few ignorant people made you feel bad? Even for frivolous lawsuits, that takes the cake. Jackpot juries must be reined in, or the lunacy will only increase.
That guy who calls you an unprintable name? Sue him! Your boss who belittles you? Hire an attorney! And if you’re an elected official or celebrity on the receiving end of a not-too-flattering commentary? File suit to shut down the critics!
Ironically, the freedoms that Matthew Snyder died protecting are the very ones we are nonchalantly giving away.
It’s time to wake up, America.
Europe has become a dying, cowardly continent, appeasing the very enemies that seek to destroy it by bowing to radical Muslims who want to shut down any viewpoints they deem offensive.
Is that where we are headed? Ban this, censor that, and eliminate more freedoms?
Thankfully, the Supreme Court just ruled, 8-1, that the military protesters’ speech is not unlawful.
But many in the country still vehemently disagree, advocating more bans and increased restrictions.
Fine. That’s their right. But they should at least be honest and stop pretending they care about “liberty.”
Censor everything, and replace the Stars and Stripes with the white flag of surrender. Ironically, we’ll have become what these people claim to abhor: the United States of France.
Chris Freind is an independent columnist, television commentator, and investigative reporter who operates his own news bureau, www.FreindlyFireZone.com
Readers of his column, “Freindly Fire,” hail from six continents, thirty countries and all fifty states. His work has been referenced in numerous publications including The Wall Street Journal, National Review Online, foreign newspapers, and in Dick Morris’ recent bestseller “Catastrophe.”
Freind, whose column appears regularly in Philadelphia Magazine and nationally in Newsmax, also serves as a frequent guest commentator on talk radio and state/national television, most notably on FOX Philadelphia. He can be reached at CF@FreindlyFireZone.com
March 4, 2011 at 7:15 pm