Albert Snyder of York, Pa., the father of a Westminster Marine who was killed in Iraq, today won his case in a Baltimore federal court against members of Topeka, Kan.-based Westboro Baptist Church who protested at his son’s funeral last year.
The jury of five women and four men awarded Snyder $2.9 million in compensatory damages. The amount of punitive damages to be awarded has not yet been decided. The jury deliberated for about two hours yesterday and much of today…
Specifically, he charged that they violated his privacy, intentionally inflicted emotional harm and engaged in a conspiracy to carry out their activities. The jury decided in Snyder’s favor on every count.
This will open the floodgates for the other families who’ve been protested by Phelps to sue and put him in the poorhouse, if the verdict stands on appeal. That’s the real test here. The tort of intentional infliction of emotional distress that Snyder won on hinges on “outrageousness”; a standard example is prank-calling someone to tell them their spouse or child was killed in an accident. It’s up to the jury to decide if the offending behavior is so beyond the pale that the perpetrator should actually have to atone by paying the victim money. Given the parties involved here, a sympathetic verdict was a foregone conclusion. The question on appeal will be whether the First Amendment protects Phelps from the IIED claim, with the Falwell case, which also involved IIED, sure to be cited as precedent. In that case Larry Flynt’s editorial cartoon about Falwell was ruled to be protected speech, but only because Falwell was a “public figure” for First Amendment purposes, which the Snyder family likely is not. The Court’s reasoning was that people have to be free to criticize public figures in order to engage in public debate; otherwise they’d live in fear of being hit with an IIED suit every time they said something harsh. Whether they need the same freedom to criticize the war by holding “God Hates Fags” signs outside a soldier’s funeral is another matter. Phelps will point to this language in the opinion in his defense:
“Outrageousness” in the area of political and social discourse has an inherent subjectiveness about it which would allow a jury to impose liability on the basis of the jurors’ tastes or views, or perhaps on the basis of their dislike of a particular expression. An “outrageousness” standard thus runs afoul of our longstanding refusal to allow damages to be awarded because the speech in question may have an adverse emotional impact on the audience.
If you take that seriously, all IIED claims should be unconstitutional on First Amendment grounds. The Court evidently doesn’t believe that’s true, though, because it declined to rule that way in Falwell, limiting its decision instead to cases involving public figures. Phelps’s only chance is to ask them to extend that ruling and now declare all IIED claims flatly unconstitutional or to argue that the Snyder family are limited purpose public figures for purposes of the analysis, which would strengthen the First Amendment defense. With a conservative Supreme Court and public sentiment overwhelmingly in the plaintiff’s favor, they’ve got a tough haul.
Update: Does Reuters have any basis for believing Matthew Snyder was gay, or are they just very stupidly assuming that based on the signs carried by Phelps family members at the funeral? The screencap, in case it changes:
I looked around in the Baltimore Sun archives but didn’t see anything to support that claim.
Update: That didn’t take long. How ill-informed must they be not to know that the “God Hates Fags” crap is SOP for Phelps?
Update: Like I said, the big money’s in the punitives.
The jury first awarded $2.9 million in compensatory damages. It returned later in the afternoon with its decision to award $6 million in punitive damages for invasion of privacy and $2 million for causing emotional distress.
Interesting that the lion’s share comes from the privacy claim, not the IIED claim. It’s my understanding that the Phelps people followed the law and kept their statutorily mandated distance from the funeral itself. I wonder if that’s going to affect these damages on appeal.