||08-18-2010 12:58 PM
It has happened.
On March 10, 2006 WBC picketed the funeral of Marine Lance Corporal Matthew A. Snyder. On June 5, 2006 the Snyder family sued for defamation, invasion of privacy, and intentional infliction of emotional distress. The lawsuit named Albert Snyder, Matthew Snyder's father, as plaintiff and Fred W. Phelps, Sr.; Westboro Baptist Church, Inc.; Rebekah Phelps-Davis; and Shirley Phelps-Roper as defendants, alleging that they were responsible for publishing defamatory information about the Snyder family on the Internet, including statements that Albert and his wife had "raised [Matthew] for the devil" and taught him "to defy his Creator, to divorce, and to commit adultery". Other statements denounced them for raising their son Catholic. Snyder further complained the defendants had intruded upon and staged protests at his son's funeral. The claims of invasion of privacy and defamation arising from comments posted about Snyder on the Westboro website were dismissed on First Amendment grounds, but the case proceeded to trial on the remaining three counts. At the trial, Albert Snyder testified:
They turned this funeral into a media circus and they wanted to hurt my family. They wanted their message heard and they didn't care who they stepped over. My son should have been buried with dignity, not with a bunch of clowns outside.
In his instructions to the jury, U.S. District Judge Richard Bennett stated that the First Amendment protection of free speech has limits, including vulgar, offensive and shocking statements, and that the jury must decide "whether the defendant's actions would be highly offensive to a reasonable person, whether they were extreme and outrageous and whether these actions were so offensive and shocking as to not be entitled to First Amendment protection". See also Chaplinsky v. New Hampshire, a case where certain personal slurs and obscene utterances by an individual were found unworthy of First Amendment protection, due to the potential for violence resulting from their utterance.
On October 31, 2007, WBC, Fred Phelps and his two daughters, Shirley Phelps-Roper and Rebecca Phelps-Davis, were found liable for invasion of privacy and intentional infliction of emotional distress. A federal jury awarded Snyder $2.9 million in compensatory damages, then later added a decision to award $6 million in punitive damages for invasion of privacy and an additional $2 million for causing emotional distress (a total of $10,900,000). The organization said it would not change its message because of the verdict.
WBC said that it was thankful for the verdict, but also unsuccessfully sought a mistrial (based on alleged prejudicial statements made by the judge and violations of the gag order by the plaintiff's attorney) and also filed an appeal.
On February 4, 2008, U.S. District Judge Richard D. Bennett upheld the ruling, but reduced the punitive damages from $8 million to $2.1 million, bringing the total judgment to $5 million. Liens were ordered on church buildings and Phelps' law office in an attempt to ensure that the damages would be paid.
On September 24, 2009, a federal appeals court ruled in favor of Westboro Baptist Church. It found their picket near the funeral is protected speech and did not violate the privacy of the service member's family, reversing the lower court's award. On March 30, 2010, the appeals court ordered Albert Snyder to pay the church's court costs of over $16,000, a move that Snyder's attorney's referred to as "adding insult to injury". The decision has led to nationwide support for Snyder, with over 3,000 promises for donations to help offset the cost; Political commentator Bill O'Reilly offered to pay the entire amount of the costs on March 30. The American Legion has also raised $17,000 to help pay Snyder's court costs.
On March 8, 2010, the U.S. Supreme Court granted certiorari in Snyder v. Phelps, (Docket No. 09-751, March 8, 2010). On May 28, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, joined by 42 other Senators, filed an amicus brief in support of Snyder with the Supreme Court. On June 1, Kansas Attorney General Stephen Six filed a separate brief supporting Snyder. This brief was joined by the Attorneys General of 47 other states and the District of Columbia, with Maine and Virginia being the two exceptions.