On March 3, 2006 20 year old Matthew Snyder was riding in the gun turret of his Humvee in the Al Anbar province of Iraq, when he was involved in an accident. The Humvee rolled over and Matthew was killed. 7 days later Snyder’s family held his funeral in his hometown in Maryland. Along with the family, friends, and community members who showed up to pay their respects to Lance Cpl. Snyder, there were a few protesters from the infamous Westboro Baptist Church.
I’m sure that most people reading this know about Fred Phelps and his church. For those that don’t they are a small Topeka, Kansas based Baptist church that is devoted to spreading the message of God’s hate for humanity. Fueled by Fred Phelps self hatred as a closeted homosexual (I’m guessing here), they travel the country protesting with signs that say “God Hates Fags.” Since their early days picketing at the funerals of victims of AIDS and hate crimes, they have expanded to include the funerals of soldiers and marines who were killed in Iraq and Afghanistan. They see the deaths as proof that God hates America because we are all “fag enablers.”
Their message is disgusting, their tactics are reprehensible. Everything they do is an attempt to get more publicity for their distorted view of Christianity. Fred Phelps and his daughters Shirley Phelps-Roper and Rebecca Phelps-Davis are three of the worst people on the face of the planet, and I am not exaggerating my feelings for effect. They truly are scum, and honestly if they were on a plane to protest that fell out of the sky and they didn’t survive the world would be a better place.
Anyway back to the story of the WBC protesting the funeral of Lance Cpl. Snyder. They showed up and did what they do everyday, of course the family was disgusted and outraged, as they should be. Snyder’s father Albert sued the church for intrusion and intentional infliction of emotional distress. The case went to trial and the jury found in favor of Mr. Snyder and awarded him $10.9 million in damages. The Phelps family (who are mostly lawyers by the way) appealed and the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals overturned the verdict citing the Phelps’ first amendment protections. Earlier this month the United States Supreme Court agreed to hear the case, and it will be very interesting to see what they have to say.
The most recent twist in this case came yesterday when the 4th circuit court ordered that Albert Snyder has to pay the legal bills of the Phelps family, which so far are $16,510. This is apparently standard practice in lawsuits, and for a good reason. If there is a possibility of you being required to pay the legal bills of someone you sue, chances are you are going to make sure you have a solid case before going ahead. Courts are full enough without frivolous lawsuits and a person should not have to spend thousands of dollars to defend themselves against a lawsuit without merit.
Which brings me to the part that is probably going to make some people upset. I think that maybe for the first time in their existence, the Phelps family is completely right. Personally I think their actions could not be more wrong, but their legal argument is correct. The purpose of the First Amendment is not to protect speech that is popular. It is to protect the speech that is not. The Phelps family has the right to stand on our public streets and say what they want to say.
It is that right that Lance Cpl. Snyder and thousands of his fellow soldiers, airmen, marines and sailors have given their lives to protect, and it is doing a disservice to them to try to take away the rights of someone just because we disagree with what they say.