Marine’s Dad Gets $11M for Funeral Picketing
Posted Oct 31, 2007 6:48 PM CDT
By Martha Neil
In a verdict that is sure to catch the attention of First Amendment advocates, a federal jury in Baltimore has awarded $2.9 million in compensatory damages and $8 million in punitive damages to a father of a fallen Marine whose funeral was picketed by members of a fringe Kansas church.
The jury found that the Westboro Baptist Church and three leaders invaded the father's privacy and intentionally inflicted emotional distress by picketing the March 2006 funeral of Lance Cpl. Matthew Snyder, who died in Iraq, reports the Washington Post. "The church maintains that God is punishing the United States, killing and maiming troops, because the country tolerates homosexuality," the newspaper explains.
(For more on the Westboro Baptist Church, see the the July 2006 ABA Journal story, "Picket Fencing.")
Their protest of Snyder's funeral included a sign stating "Thank God for dead soldiers," according to the Baltimore Sun.
The amount of damages awarded "far exceeds the net worth of the defendants," says U.S. District Judge Richard Bennett, who presided at the trial.
It is also "an awful lot of money for compensatory damages," Mark Graber, a University of Maryland law professor, tells the newspaper. "This was in a public space. While the actions are reprehensible, the First Amendment protects a lot that's reprehensible."
Nearly half of the states in the country, at least, have enacted or proposed laws to limit funeral protests, in reaction to such shock tactics. Although they raise obvious First Amendment issues, it appears that their content-neutral restrictions limiting protests within, for example, 100 to 500 feet of the entrance to a cemetery may pass constitutional muster, according to a New York Times article published last year.
A funeral home, for instance, "seems high on the list of places where people legitimately could be or should be protected from unwanted messages," Michael Dorf, a Columbia Law School professor, told the Times.
As the judge saw it in this case, the conflict between the First Amendment rights of free speech and religious expression and the family's right to privacy is decided by a balancing test, the Sun reports. "You must balance the defendants' expression of religious belief with another citizen's right to privacy," he instructed jurors yesterday.
Updated 2:14 p.m. CST 11/01/2007