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Author: Subject: Punitive Damages To Be Happy About - Fred Phelps Loses Lawsuit - Big Time

Zen Peach





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  posted on 10/31/2007 at 11:16 PM
Finally something has been done about this stain on not only my hometown, but humanity - here he is protesting the courthouse:



quote:
Man wins case against funeral protesters
Father of slain Marine awarded nearly $11 million in compensatory, punitive damages

By Matthew Dolan and Julie Bykowicz | Sun Reporters
11:01 PM EDT, October 31, 2007

A Baltimore federal jury awarded nearly $11 million Wednesday to the father of a Marine killed in Iraq, deciding that the family's privacy had been invaded by a Kansas church whose members waved anti-gay signs at the funeral.

It was the first-ever verdict against Westboro Baptist Church, a fundamentalist Christian group based in Topeka that has protested military funerals across the country with placards bearing shock-value messages such as "Thank God for dead soldiers."

They contend that the deaths are punishment for America's tolerance of homosexuality and of gays in the military.

Relatives of Lance Cpl. Matthew Snyder wept and hugged at the jury's announcement, which came a day after closing arguments in the civil trial in federal district court.

"Now I know it's going to be harder for them to do it to anyone else," said Albert Snyder, who mourned at his son's funeral in March 2006 while seven Westboro members waved signs nearby.

The compensatory damage award alone, $2.9 million, was nearly triple the net worth of Westboro and the three members on trial, their attorney said.

Fred W. Phelps Sr., Westboro's founder, vowed to appeal to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit, in Richmond, Va.

"It's going to be reversed in five minutes," he said. This case, he added, "will elevate me to something important," as it draws more publicity to his cause.

The jury found the defendants liable for violating the Snyder family's expectation of privacy at the funeral and for intentionally inflicting emotional distress.

Snyder's lawsuit spurred a constitutional debate over how far the First Amendment should extend to protect the most extreme forms of expression.

Some legal experts said the judgment could be a setback for those who believe in broad free-speech protections.

"I think when speech is a matter of public concern it still has to be protected, even when by social standards it is extraordinarily rude and outrageous," said UCLA law professor Eugene Volokh.

University of Maryland law professor Mark Graber said the size of award, which included $8 million in punitive damages, could have a chilling effect on speech.

"This was in a public space," Graber said "While the actions are reprehensible, the First Amendment protects a lot that's reprehensible." After the verdict, Phelps and his two daughters named in Snyder's lawsuit said they believed that it was really their religious beliefs that were on trial.

"The goofy jury threw a fit at God," Phelps said.

For years Westboro members have crisscrossed the country, turning somber funerals of soldiers from Iraq and Afghanistan into attention-grabbing platforms to criticize homosexuals as immoral and damned. The church's 75-member congregation is composed mainly of Phelps' relatives.

The group also blames disasters, including Hurricane Katrina, the Sept. 11 attacks and AIDS, on what it views as permissive morals in violation of biblical dictates.

Alarmed by Westboro protests, at least 22 states have proposed or enacted laws to limit the rights of protesters at funerals. Only months after Matthew Snyder's death, Maryland passed a law prohibiting targeted picketing within 300 feet of a funeral, burial, memorial service or funeral procession.

The courtroom fight came down to whether Westboro had a legal right to demonstrate at Snyder's funeral or whether the protesters crossed the line because their message impugned the grieving family's reputation and unlawfully invaded the Snyders' privacy.

The Marine's father, a 52-year-old who lives in York, Pa., sued the church and three of its members, founder Phelps and two of his daughters, Rebecca Phelps-Davis and Shirley Phelps-Roper.

For Snyder's claim of invasion of privacy to have succeeded, the jury needed to conclude that the church's actions at the funeral -- and later, in an Internet posting about Matthew Snyder on its Web site -- were "highly offensive to a reasonable person," according to the jury instructions.

Albert Snyder also contended that the church's actions were an intentional infliction of emotional distress. Under the law, to find in favor of Snyder, the five women and four men of the jury needed to find that the church's conduct was "intentional or reckless."

Jury instructions also required that the conduct be "extreme and outrageous," leading to severe emotional distress.

"You must balance the defendants' expression of religious belief with another citizen's right to privacy," U.S. District Judge Richard D. Bennett instructed jurors Tuesday.

The weeklong trial brought together Snyder and his family and the progeny of Phelps, a retired attorney.

In the courtroom, the Phelps family dressed plainly, its women with long hair and no makeup. In testimony, they stood steadfast to their beliefs and did not apologize for their conduct.

Often overcome by emotion, Albert Snyder sat in shirtsleeves and flanked by his attorneys. When the videos made of the protest at his son's funeral were played for jurors during closing arguments, he wept.

During his testimony last week, Snyder told jurors that he was clinically depressed and that the sight of the protest at the funeral made him physically ill.

Fred Phelps took the stand after Snyder, testifying that he had not considered whether children would see a sign carried by protesters with the words "Semper Fi Fags" and two stick figures that appeared to be engaged in sodomy, according to the Associated Press.

Three adults and four children picketed the March 10, 2006, funeral at St. John Roman Catholic Church in Westminster. Westboro members insisted that their demonstration, about 1,000 feet from the Catholic church, took place legally.

In closing arguments, the attorneys sparred over the nature of the protest and whether the demonstrators' "speech" is protected by the Constitution.

Sean E. Summers, one of Snyder's attorneys, said Westboro members personally targeted the family because they brought Marine-specific signs to their rally at the funeral and had researched and posted Albert Snyder's marital history on their Web site in an essay titled "The Burden of Lance. Cpl. Matthew Snyder."

But Westboro attorney Jonathan Katz argued that the protest was no different from thousands of others. Nothing about the demonstration was so offensive or damaging, he said, as to rise to the level of a libelous attack on the family, individually.

Protests by Westboro have produced so much negative reaction that members routinely tell local police departments of their plans so that they can provide added security.

The defendants staged a protest on Pratt Street near the federal courthouse at noontime Wednesday, before the verdict was announced.

Counter protests often follow, and groups such as the Patriot Guard have cropped up to try to shield families from Westboro members' controversial signs and songs.

What sometimes took a back seat in the federal free-speech trial was the life and death of Matthew A. Snyder, a 2003 graduate of Westminster High School. A victim of a vehicle accident in Anbar province in March 2006, the 20-year-old had been in the war zone for less than a month.

Snyder's sexual preference was not an issue at the trial; his father said his son was not gay. Church members said they did not target Snyder's funeral because of his sexual preference; they were there to oppose gays in the military.

They said they waved placards -- "Thank God for IEDs" and "Fag Troops" among others -- near the funeral motorcade to bring attention to their message.

Snyder testified that he never saw the content of the signs as he entered and left St. John's on the day of his son's funeral. He read the signs for the first time during television news reports later that day.

A Google search on the Internet weeks later led him to the church's Web site and the posting about Matthew Snyder.

In arguing for punitive damages after the jury ruled in favor of Snyder, attorney Craig T. Trebilcock urged jurors to "deter [Westboro] from ever doing this to another family again."

"These are malicious people," he said. "These are stone-hearted people. They were celebrants of Matt Snyder's death."

Katz, the defendants' attorney, urged jurors to "look dispassionately" at Westboro's financial status in awarding punitive damages.

He said Fred Phelps is an unpaid pastor, Rebecca Phelps-Davis is a low-paid attorney at the Phelps law firm and that Shirley Phelps- Roper is a part-time law firm employee and mother of 11 children.

As for the church, Katz said, its only income is generated by meager tithings from congregants, many of whom are children or unemployed.

Trebilcock told jurors that they did not have to believe the Phelpses' financial disclosures -- pointing out that Rebecca Phelps- Davis reported just $306 in liquid assets.

Earlier in the trial, the Phelpses testified that they spent $400 apiece on plane tickets to get to Snyder's funeral. And Shirley Phelps-Roper eagerly showed off her iPhone to reporters, which she said was a birthday gift from her children.

Summers, an attorney for Snyder, said after the verdict that the lawsuit was not about money, it was about stopping Westboro.

Summers said he was ready and waiting for the appeal. "We will chase them until they have nothing left."


http://www.baltimoresun.com/news/local/bal-westboro1031,0,7191706.story?pag e=3



My Grandmother has lived in Topeka for all of her 90 years. Trust me, she knows everybody in town. The Phelps family isn't broke. By a long shot. Just very, very good at hiding it.

 

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Zen Peach



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  posted on 10/31/2007 at 11:33 PM
Thank heaven....I hope these twisted people are stopped completely. What a bunch of losers.
 

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  posted on 11/1/2007 at 08:27 AM
I know I spent a good part of yesterday evening in a couple of raging online debates about whether or not this verdict opens the door to suppression of speech, where the boundaries between free speech and intimidation/ harrassment are and how it applies when it crosses from the public to the private realms.
Never mind the argument over it just being wrong on more than several levels

 

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Zen Peach



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  posted on 11/1/2007 at 09:36 AM
OK, just for the sake of argument, if people like Phelps are afforded the right of free speech at a slain soldiers funeral, then I should be afforded the right to kick his ass if I am offended by it.

As far as I am concerned, Phelps will have to answer to God for the way he acts so intolerantly towards people he is at odds with. EFF HIM!! (How's THAT for free speech?)

 

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Zen Peach



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  posted on 11/1/2007 at 09:46 AM
As much as I despise these Idiots, I have a feeeling this will be overturned on appeal on First Amendment Grounds.

 

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  posted on 11/1/2007 at 09:52 AM
quote:
As much as I despise these Idiots, I have a feeeling this will be overturned on appeal on First Amendment Grounds.




Agreed. In a free society, we must accept stupid and offensive speech. This is not like crying out fire in a crowded theatre.

 

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  posted on 11/1/2007 at 10:56 AM
BD, OTF, your opinions were exactly my sentiments last night and I took a pretty good beating for it. I had more than one person that couldn't seem to make the distinction between free speech and outright intimidation/ harrassment.
It seems as though a lot of folks think it's OK for this to cross into private situations without any kind of accountability.
It may very well be overturned in a higher court, but all I know for sure is the fact that if it was one of my family member's funerals, I most likely would be serving a rather long prison sentence.

 

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Zen Peach



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  posted on 11/1/2007 at 01:08 PM
quote:
quote:
I know I spent a good part of yesterday evening in a couple of raging online debates about whether or not this verdict opens the door to suppression of speech, where the boundaries between free speech and intimidation/ harrassment are and how it applies when it crosses from the public to the private realms.
Never mind the argument over it just being wrong on more than several levels



It isn't a free speech situation at all. Despite most peoples opinion, free speech does not give you the right to say whatever you want, whenever you want. It is the ability to criticize the government. But it needs to be done in the proper place. On the surface, this may look like a political protest, but in reality, it is just harassment. The appropriate place for Phelps and his minions is protesting at the White House or Capitol, not at a private citizens funeral.


But they are not "at" the "Private funeral". They are on public property, near the funeral.
It may be splitting hairs , but it is a distinction that has some legal merit.

It is always a difficult balance between the right to privacy and freedom from harrassment against the right to free speech.

I agree it would be more appropriate to protest at a more political venue.

It still think this will be struck down on appeal.

Even if the damages are voided, Phelps has a another judgement coming.





 

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  posted on 11/1/2007 at 01:24 PM
I'd risk a misdemeanor battery charge to get my own point across to Phelps and his "followers." As I said earlier, EFF him and anybody that thinks like him.

 

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  posted on 11/1/2007 at 02:55 PM
Maybe I am being close minded, but I am with Dave on this! That guy can say whatever he wants, but not at the funeral of anybody! I would kick his ass too!

 

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Zen Peach



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  posted on 11/1/2007 at 04:05 PM
I bet fred is gay.

I hear he's dating Larry Craig.

 

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Zen Peach



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  posted on 11/1/2007 at 06:18 PM
quote:
Fred W. Phelps Sr., Westboro's founder, vowed to appeal to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit, in Richmond, Va.

"It's going to be reversed in five minutes," he said. This case, he added, "will elevate me to something important," as it draws more publicity to his cause.
Another twisted mind. I feel sorry for the family and friends of this slain soldier and only hope that this does in some measure keep these wierdo's out of another families face during their bereavement. But I doubt it. What galls me here:

- These creatures bill themselves as a fundamentalist Christian group. I'm pretty sure Christ has nothing to do with the kind of hatefulness I see spewed in their banners.

- They are depending on local police protection whenever they hold one of their public demonstrations. Whose taxes pay the police they are asking to come in and protect their sorry a**es?

- These 'church' people are stated as being low-paid to unpaid by their attorney but are able to fly around the nation tormenting families who have lost loved ones needlessly. Pretty sure this flying involves planes and therefore plane-fare. They are also working under the cover of a not for profit church. So the costs incurred in spreading this bu**sh** is probably something that's being written off taxes and/or filed under that protective 'church' coverlet...further insulation.


I have not checked this fact out but the above story indicates that Matthew Snyder's father bumped into the Westboro site when doing a google search on his son's name. I briefly looked at the cult website (I cannot refer to them as church people anymore - somehow that implies goodness and I'm not seeing it in these peoples message). I can see where it would have indeed been depressing and caused Snyder Sr. to become physically ill because their site is that bad. These people are sick. I had the option of being able to quickly exit their site (which believe me I did - the briefest glance had me wanting to wash my hands...they are vile). I think the Snyder's deserve to have the option to bury their son in peace. My heart aches for these people that they have been subjected to even having these sorry creatures enter their lives after suffering the heartbreak they've already suffered through loosing their son.

[Edited on 11/1/2007 by lolasdeb]

 

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  posted on 11/1/2007 at 07:50 PM
These people are not Christians, they are hate-mongers.


Contrary to what the 1 sign says, according to the Bible as I remember it from Sunday school God is love & hate is a 4 letter (no pun intended) word to Him

 

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Zen Peach



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  posted on 11/1/2007 at 08:12 PM
quote:

Harassment is harassment. You don't have the right to do it in public, on private property, or anywhere else. They targeted this soldier. If the courts can't see the intent, then we have big problems.



I agree

Yet they allow these idiots that come and yell and scream at women entering abortion clinics.
I think that is harrassment, Yet it is allowed.

Where to draw the line??

 

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  posted on 11/1/2007 at 08:41 PM
quote:
quote:

Harassment is harassment. You don't have the right to do it in public, on private property, or anywhere else. They targeted this soldier. If the courts can't see the intent, then we have big problems.




quote:
I agree

Yet they allow these idiots that come and yell and scream at women entering abortion clinics.
I think that is harrassment, Yet it is allowed.

Where to draw the line??
The court draws the line at "across the street" usually....unless it's an on-campus ROTC center.

My first reaction was to feel that these people make me ashamed to call myself a Christian, but the more I thought about it I figured it was these folks that are the misguided one. I feel that Christ would not approve of their conduct. It's people like these, and others that use Christ for manipulation of the weak minded, that give Christianity a black eye, and God will judge their actions. As a Christian I can only have pity for their misguided, twisted beliefs that straddle the line on hatred and lack of Christian charity to their brothers & sisters.

.....I'll jump off my pietous soapbox now.... We now return you to your regularly scheduled broadcast........

 

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  posted on 11/1/2007 at 09:39 PM
These peoples' views are despicable to me in so many ways, but this is a situation where hard cases make bad law. The tort of intentional infliction of emotional distress requires some sort of quantifiable actual injury beyond hurt feelings, and I don't see any expectation of privacy when the protesters were in a public place. Harrassment (which was not mentioned as a verdict ground) does not exist as a legal theory; it may be talked about, but it's usually in the context of some other cognizable wrong.

Can you imagine if money damages could be awarded for peaceful protest? A chilling effect on speech would exist, say in the instance of protest against some wrongdoing multinational corporation, which could sue protestors w/ a phalanx of lawyers and litigate ordinary people into submission for adversely affecting its business. Not a slippery slope we need to get on.

Sometimes the law does not have a remedy for every wrong. I have some other ideas, being part Sicilian.

 

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  posted on 11/1/2007 at 10:09 PM
Quote:
These peoples' views are despicable to me in so many ways, but this is a situation where hard cases make bad law. The tort of intentional infliction of emotional distress requires some sort of quantifiable actual injury beyond hurt feelings, and I don't see any expectation of privacy when the protesters were in a public place. Harrassment (which was not mentioned as a verdict ground) does not exist as a legal theory; it may be talked about, but it's usually in the context of some other cognizable wrong.

Can you imagine if money damages could be awarded for peaceful protest? A chilling effect on speech would exist, say in the instance of protest against some wrongdoing multinational corporation, which could sue protestors w/ a phalanx of lawyers and litigate ordinary people into submission for adversely affecting its business. Not a slippery slope we need to get on.

Sometimes the law does not have a remedy for every wrong. I have some other ideas, being part Sicilian. : Unquote


Well said counselor, after being the plaintiff in a first amendment case federal court myself for nearly two and a half years and finally prevailing,I have learned one thing: one plus one does not always equal two in a court of law.

 

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Zen Peach



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  posted on 11/1/2007 at 10:24 PM
quote:
- These creatures bill themselves as a fundamentalist Christian group. I'm pretty sure Christ has nothing to do with the kind of hatefulness I see spewed in their banners.



Specifically, they call themselves "Independent Baptist Five-Point Calvinist." As far as that goes, I grew up Catholic and was raised to respect and love people of all faiths, but Five-Point Calivinism is completely insane.

lolasdeb, you refer to them as a cult, and you are right. But, the thing is, it's in many ways worse than that. Westboro has about 70-75 members - about 60 of them relatives by blood or marriage. Most of the adults are attorneys or have law degrees. They've cried broke for years, but they have money.

As far as the freedom of speech aspect, well, there is indeed a difference between what may be legal and what is right. You can get arrested for "disorderly conduct" for peeing on a sidewalk, stumbling around drunk, or being generally strange. You can get a ticket and a fine for not wearing a seatbelt, a motorcycle helmet, you can go to prison for having a freaking plant in a plastic bag. You can be detained for being suspicious in an airport security line, you can go to jail for all kinds of things. Hell, seriously. You can go to jail or have your freedom usurped for just about anything.

And yet, it's perfectly legal to go and yell and scream and display all kinds of sick, rude sh!t at a funeral of a person you've never met? A complete stranger?

IMO, there is serious need here for something to be done to protect at least common human decency.

 

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Universal Peach



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  posted on 11/4/2007 at 10:35 PM
My sister in law last June was told by her "church" to leave Portland Oregon for the weekend because there was going to be a huge earthquake in Portland due to the pride festival being held downtown. Of course she believed them and left us all in town to die while she camped out in central Oregon with the rest of the sheep in her church.
In the end she missed a good family BBQ.

 

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