Albert Snyder’s only son was killed in Iraq more than 4 yrs ago, yet his grief is still raw. When he decided to battle an anti-gay church — the Westboro Baptist Church — that picketed his son’s funeral, he committed to years reliving the anguish of his life’s darkest hours.
On March 10, 2006 WBC picketed the funeral of Marine Lance Corporal Matthew A. Snyder. On June 5, 2006 the Snyder family sued Fred Phelps, WBC, and unnamed others for defamation, invasion of privacy, and intentional infliction of emotional distress. 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 Mr. 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.
The lawsuit named Albert Snyder as the 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.
“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.”
— Albert Snyder testimony
In the judge’s 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.
WBC is seeking a mistrial based on alleged prejudicial statements made by the judge and violations of the gag order by the plaintiff’s attorney. An appeal is also likely. WBC has said that it is thankful for the verdict.
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. The total judgment now stands at $5 million. An appeal by WBC is still pending. Liens have been ordered on church buildings and Phelps’ law office in an attempt to ensure that the damages are paid.
a writ or order by which a higher court reviews a decision of a lower court : an order of certiorari.
On September 24, 2009, a federal appeals court ruled in favor of Westboro Baptist Church. It found their picket near the funeral of Lance Corporal Matthew A. Snyder is protected speech and did not violate the privacy of the service member’s family, reversing a lower court’s $5 million award and on 30 March 2010 ordered Albert Snyder to pay the court costs for Westboro Baptist Church totaling 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 entirety of the costs on March 30. On 8 March 2010 the U.S. Supreme Court granted certiorari in Snyder v. Phelps, (Docket No. 09-751, March 8, 2010).
The American Legion and FOXNews commentator Bill O’Reilly and other individual donors have promised to help Snyder shoulder the court costs.
The Westboro Baptist Church (WBC) is an Independent Baptist church and hate group known for its hatred of homosexuals. WBC is headed by Fred Phelps and is located in Topeka, Kansas, United States. WBC’s first public service was held on the afternoon of Sunday, November 27, 1955.
The WBC is not affiliated with any known Baptist conventions or associations. The church describes itself as following Primitive Baptist and Calvinist principles, though mainstream Primitive Baptists reject the WBC and Phelps. The group is best known for its protest activities, which include picketing funerals and desecration of the American flag.
A protest group from the Westboro Baptist Church had planned to demonstrate at the funeral of U.S. Army soldier Will Newgard at St. James Church on Arlington Heights Road on January 15, 2007, but winter weather grounded their flight and prevented their arrival at O’Hare International Airport in time for the funeral. Will Newgard was killed by a roadside bomb in Baghdad, Iraq on December 29, 2006.