You have the good fortune to live in a country where your freedom to say, and believe, that God hates Fred Phelps and the Westboro Baptist Church is protected by law. If Phelps ran the government, I'd go to prison or be executed for saying that:
The U.S. fourth circuit court of appeals said Thursday the Rev. Fred Phelps and his Westboro Baptist Church were within their First Amendment rights to protest at the funeral of Lance Cpl. Matthew Snyder.
The ruling reversed a Maryland jury's verdict in October 2007 to award Albert Snyder, a Spring Garden Township resident, $2.9 million in compensatory damages and $8 million in punitive damages for emotional distress and invasion of privacy.
A few thoughts: though philosophically I'm not of the opinion that the First Amendment should provide as much protection from private actions in tort as it does from criminal proscription by the government, the Federal courts, to the extent they've erred in this matter, have tended to do so on the side of free speech, and I approve of that.
A tort action, whether phrased as defamation (traditionally not protected by the First Amendment) or intentional infliction of emotional distress, has just as much potential to shut down controversial, often valuable, speech and debate as a spell in jail. In this case, a Maryland jury correctly awarded Albert Snyder $10.9 million in damages.
I say that the jury was correct. Fred Phelps should be bankrupt. Fred Phelps should live the rest of his days as a pauper, or better still in debtor's prison. The problem is that the judge should have dismissed this case before it ever got to a jury. The problem is that if we're going to do that to Phelps, we'll have to pauperize or imprison other people whose ideas and speech upset their neighbors. Those who blaspheme against the Prophet Muhammad for instance, a direction to which much of Europe and Canada are trending though they're supposedly secular. Or perhaps those who say cruel things about Republicans or Democrats. Since I don't want to live in a country where blaspheming against Muhammad, or insulting Republicans or Democrats is a crime, I'm willing to accord Fred Phelps the right to be a non-violent monster, even when he insults dead soldiers.
My heart goes out to Mr. Snyder. We all know that the best policy with a Fred Phelps is to ignore him, but some provocations are unbearable, and we're human. The second best might be a punch in the nose, but that is illegal. As we've observed before, maybe the best practical counter-attack against a Phelps is to do a good deed in his name.
Tomorrow morning Phelps and his crew of bigots will be spewing their homophobic anti-semitic bile at Union Temple, a reform Judaism synagogue in Brooklyn. If you're reading this, and have a few dollars to spare for a good deed, perhaps a donation to one of their affiliated charities might be in order.
Make it in the name of Corporal Matthew Snyder, for the forgiveness of Fred Phelps.
Last 5 posts by Patrick Non-White
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