The brokenhearted father of a Marine killed in Iraq won a long-shot legal fight today after a federal jury in Baltimore awarded him nearly $11 million in a verdict against members of a Kansas church who hoisted anti-gay placards at his son’s Westminster funeral.
The jury’s announcement 24 hours after deliberations first began was met with tears and hugs from the family and supporters of Lance Cpl. Matthew Snyder, whose March 2006 funeral was protested by members of the Westboro Baptist Church with signs including “Thank God for dead soldiers.”
Snyder’s father, Albert, won on every count of his complaint, as well as $2.9 million for compensatory damages and $8 million for punitive damages.
Over the past week, the civil trial in U.S. District Court in Baltimore turned into a constitutional debate over how far the First Amendment should extend to protect the most extreme forms of expression. The groundbreaking verdict is believed to be the first time the fundamental Christian church from Topeka that is composed mainly of family members has been successfully sued for its shock funeral protests.
One legal expert worried that the initial size of the compensatory judgment, which was awarded first, could be a setback for those who believe in broad free-speech protections.
“The award — $2.9 million — is an awful lot of money for compensatory damages,” University of Maryland law professor Mark Graber said today. “This was in a public space. While the actions are reprehensible, the First Amendment protects a lot that’s reprehensible.”
U.S. District Judge Richard D. Bennett, who had sealed the church’s financial documents, said from the bench that the compensatory damage award would already eclipse Westboro’s assets.
A decision in the free speech case was closely watched after Westboro members criss-crossed the country in recent years, turning somber funerals of soldiers from Iraq and Afghanistan into attention-grabbing platforms to criticize gays as immoral and damned.
Carrying brightly colored signs with inflammatory messages at reportedly more than 30,000 protests, including hundreds of military funerals, members of the congregation say the nation is losing soldiers on the battlefield because the country has been too accepting of gays in every part of American society, including in the military.
Counter-protests often follow and groups like the Patriot Guard have cropped up to try to shield families from the church’s controversial signs and songs.
Alarmed by Westboro protests, at least 22 states enacted or proposed laws to limit the rights of protesters at funerals. Only months after Matthew Snyder’s death, Maryland passed a law prohibiting people from picketing within 100 feet of a funeral, memorial, burial or procession.
The courtroom fight came down to whether Westboro had a legal right to demonstrate at the March 2006 funeral of Lance Cpl. Matthew Snyder 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 from York, Pa., sued the church and three of its members for intentionally invading his privacy because his deceased son did not have that right any longer. For the claim to be successful, the jury needed to conclude that the church’s actions at the funeral — and later, in a posting about Matthew Snyder on its Web site — were “highly offensive to a reasonable person,” according to the jury instructions.
Albert Snyder also claimed that the church’s actions were an intentional infliction of emotional distress. Under the law, the five women and four women of the jury needed to find that the church’s conduct was “intentional or reckless” to find for Snyder. 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,” presiding judge Richard D. Bennett instructed jurors yesterday.
The weeklong trial brought together Snyder and his family and the progeny of Fred Phelps Sr., a retired attorney and founder of Westboro whose 71-member congregation is largely made up of his relatives. The suit names the church as defendants, as well as Phelps and his two daughters.
In the courtroom, the Phelps family dressed plainly. In testimony, they stood steadfast to their beliefs and did not apologize for their conduct.
Often overcome by emotion, Albert Snyder sat flanked by his attorneys. While the Westboro’s attorney, Jonathan Katz, spoke, Snyder averted his eyes. But when the videos made of the protest at his son’s funeral aired for the jury in closing arguments, he wept.
When called to the stand last week, the father railed against Westboro, saying that sight of the protest made him physically ill.
“They turned this funeral into a media circus, and they wanted to hurt my family,” Snyder testified, according to the Associated Press. “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.”
Fred Phelps took the stand after Snyder and prompted a strong admonition from Bennett when the pastor said 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 AP.
Church members always insisted that their March 10, 2006, demonstration took place legally, 1,000 feet from St. John Roman Catholic Church where the funeral was held. In closing arguments, the two sides battled over the nature of the protest to determine if the speech was constitutionally protected.
Sean E. Summers, Snyder’s attorney, pointed out that Westboro members personally targeted the family because they brought Marine-specific signs to their rally at the funeral and dredged up Snyder’s marital history on their Web site in an essay, “The Burden of Lance Cpl. Matthew Snyder.”
But Katz argued that the protest was no different from the thousands of others taken up by Westboro. Nothing about their demonstration was so offensive or damaging, the defense attorney said, to rise to the level of a libelous attack on the family.
Past protests by Westboro have produced so much negative reaction that they routinely alert local police departments of their plans so police can provide additional security. The defendants staged another protest on Pratt Street near the U.S. District courthouse at lunchtime today before the verdict was announced.
What sometimes took a back seat in the federal free speech trial was the life and death of Lance Cpl. Matthew A. Snyder, a 2003 Westminster High School graduate. Synder, a victim of a vehicle accident in Anbar province in March 2006, had been in the war zone less than a month.
Snyder’s sexual preference never became an issue at the trial. Church members said they did not target Snyder’s funeral because they believed the Marine was gay.
Instead, they said they waved fire-and-brimstone 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 Roman Catholic Church on the day of his son’s funeral. He glimpsed 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.
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