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Friday, October 26, 2007

The Case Against Fred Phelps’ Westboro Baptist Church

posted by on October 26 at 9:05 AM


For years, the calculatedly offensive Westboro Baptist Church has horrified humanity by picketing the funerals of dead homosexuals. (You may remember their breakout performance outside the funeral of Matthew Shepard, hoisting signs reading “FAG MATT BURNS IN HELL.”)

More recently, WBC has busied itself picketing funerals of U.S. soldiers killed in Iraq and Afghanistan, claiming such casualties as God’s punishment of the United States’ acceptance of homosexuality.

But this week, the Westboro Baptist Church is in court, fighting a lawsuit brought by the father of a Marine slain in Iraq, who claims the WBC’s hateful protest at his son’s funeral—featuring placards reading “Thank God for Dead Soliders”—amounts to invasion of privacy with intent to inflict emotional distress.

From the Associated Press:

[Judge] Richard Bennett instructed jurors at the start of testimony Tuesday that the First Amendment protection of free speech has limits, including vulgar, offensive and shocking statements. Bennett said the jurors 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.”

Church members said they are motivated by the fear of God and their need to warn America about its moral decay, rather than a desire to hurt anyone.

Grieving father Albert Snyder is seeking unspecified monetary damages for the alleged invasion of privacy and emotional distress. Full story here. (Make sure to read to the end, where key Westboro psycho Fred Phelps claims his use of the word “fag” comes directly from Scripture.)

RSS icon Comments


Not that it will make any difference but I can't wait until Phelps dies. I will protest the Hell out of his funeral. "God Hates Freds" "Thank God for Dead Morons" are 2 signs that spring to mind.
That being said it sounds like the father should lose the case. The group was out of sight and earshot from the service.
Free speech. . . yadda yadda defend to the death your right to say it yadda yadda yadda

Posted by muckfetro | October 26, 2007 9:20 AM

Gah. I don't think I know epithets powerful enough to describe how loathsome these people are.

Posted by Greg | October 26, 2007 9:21 AM

man. what a horrible situation. i hate that group so much, but the law school student in me feels like the poor dad should lose. if he doesn't, Westboro will appeal and probably win.

Posted by konstantConsumer | October 26, 2007 9:25 AM

I'm a free speech advocate, but I think he's got a case here -- this speech is intended to harm others. It's not just a point of view. If they were saying these things in their church or on their website, that would be fine; but when they take the signs and the chants to the funerals, that's deliberately hurtful.

Plus the neon multicolor fade is prohibited by the Geneva Convention for anything except 1950s boxing posters.

Posted by Fnarf | October 26, 2007 9:27 AM

KonstantConsumer: Can I ask that law-school student in you a question? Specifically: If WBC's antics don't make the cut, what would qualify as "actions so offensive and shocking as to not be entitled to First Amendment protection"? Thanks for any insight you have...

Posted by David Schmader | October 26, 2007 9:30 AM

My bet is on Phelps being outted any day now for being some sort of super perv... seems to be the trend. $10 bucks on pooh.

Posted by orangekrush | October 26, 2007 9:35 AM

If "Thank God for Dead Soldiers" is all the signs said, the First Amendment really ought to apply.

FNARF and Schmader, by the standard you propose, just about any aggrieved right-wing war supporter could stifle any number of protest messages that most of the posters here would applaud because they could claim they were so shocking as to be denied 1st Amendment protection. For example, how do you feel about GW's "Protest Zones" that are removed from the actual sites/events being protested.

That said, I'd love to kick Fred Phelps in the nuts - assuming he could find them (to paraphrase recently-censured Muni Court Judge Mark Chow).

Posted by Mr. X | October 26, 2007 9:38 AM

Fred Phelps wrote the book on being a real-life troll. He is a human 50 Hitler macro.

Posted by Gomez | October 26, 2007 9:38 AM

Clearly, Phelps is so over the top he is not the biggest threat to LGBT rights. Westboro knows their legal rights pretty well and push it to the limit.

Posted by Gay Seattle | October 26, 2007 9:40 AM

"God's Rod" sounds dirty.

Posted by DOUG. | October 26, 2007 9:47 AM

like i said, i'm just a student, though civil liberties is what i want to get into. i would say the biggest part of this is that they are never *right at* the funeral. were they within ear-shot or even closer to the funeral but quiet, they would be considered overly offensive. while i think that the fact that it's a funeral would work the sympathies of the jury, i'm not sure that this would have that must effect upon an appeals judge. if i were a betting man, i would say that the father wins the trial, but it's overturned at the appeals level.

Posted by konstantConsumer | October 26, 2007 10:04 AM

These people are just sad and sick!

I wish they could be shut up and really there should at least be an etiquette law that you don't protest a grieving family at their sons funeral. That is deranged and I can't imagine the stress and anger it causes these families.
It's not important that Albert Synder wins his case as long as he can fight these guys and maybe feel like he at least stood up to these sickos.
I hope he does win.

Posted by mj | October 26, 2007 10:05 AM

Fnarf and Schmader, I'm pretty sure the First Amendment and "Sticks and stones may break my bones..." are pretty much in agreement on Fred Phelps' actions. You know who should sue him, though? The Baptists, for defamation.

Posted by Eric F | October 26, 2007 10:17 AM

"Bennett said the jurors must decide “whether the defendant’s actions would be highly offensive to a reasonable person" ...

A reasonable person?

This pretty much rules out all religious speech if the "reasonable person" does happy to be of the same faith as the speaker.

Posted by mason | October 26, 2007 10:22 AM

typotastic: should be "This pretty much rules out all religious speech if the "reasonable person" doesn't happen to be of the same faith as the speaker."

Posted by mason | October 26, 2007 10:23 AM

If prohibited speech is deemed to include "vulgar, offensive and shocking statements", then kiss Savage Love and the Stranger good bye.

If they can prove that he is disrupting funerals, then there's a case, other wise I think it has to be viewed as protected speech.

That said, I think Phelps needs to be "disappeared" Argentine-style. Blackjacked, bound, gagged, and tossed out of an airplane flying over the ocean. Off the books, and for the benefit of everyone.

Posted by Providence | October 26, 2007 10:45 AM

If the group was out of sight and earshot...
Yeah, free speech and all. If they were actually yelling in their faces that would be something else.

Then again protesting ANY funeral, for goodness sakes, WTF?

Posted by arandomdude | October 26, 2007 10:53 AM

I can't believe Savage didn't post this...

Posted by Amelia | October 26, 2007 10:59 AM

Free political speech is often emotionally hurtful to those it is directed at, and it would set a bad precedent to demand manners and decency in such speech. That said, this story makes me want to weep for the family of this soldier. Are there any people in the world as vicious and sick as this Phelps crowd? They keep this stuff up, some bereaved relative is going to cap them on the spot, and no one outside the circle of their cult will shed a single tear.

Posted by Grant Cogswell | October 26, 2007 11:13 AM

I am still surprised he's still alive. I'm still surprised they're all still alive. Someone should just take the trash out during one of their Sunday sermons. Boom.

Picketing any funeral should be a crime. It's a fucking funeral.

Posted by Mr. Poe | October 26, 2007 11:13 AM

The protests would be right at the funeral if they were allowed to get that close. They want to get that close.

I am not opposed to shocking or vulgar speech. I'm concerned about speech that is designed to hurt others, which Phelps's group obviously is.

Posted by Fnarf | October 26, 2007 11:27 AM

Do those girls in the picture look like teenagers to anybody else? That's depressing.

Posted by Julie | October 26, 2007 11:29 AM

@22 - to me, they look like children.

Posted by Megan W | October 26, 2007 11:41 AM

There is no recourse from this type of harrassment that wouldn't involve restricting freedom of speech for everyone. The best thing is a counter demonstation from others in the religious community - where are they?

Posted by crazycatguy | October 26, 2007 11:42 AM

I'm amazed yous guys get all in a froth over something like this Fred Phelps person. Come on, he and his taliban family members are doing what works, diverting your attention from the real issues of civili equality for LGBT Americans. So he holds up a sign that some find "hurtful" (Whine, he hurt my feelings). When Phelps and his taliban get physical, then will be the time to show your outrage and get off your butts. He's voiceing his opinion. You're voiceing yours. And everyone in the middle don't give a flip.

Posted by Sargon Bighorn | October 26, 2007 11:46 AM

Fnarf, seriously, what do you mean, "hurt"? Clearly you mean it in the non-physical sense, as in "You hurt my feelings." I think that's allowed everywhere except for university campuses.

Posted by Eric F | October 26, 2007 12:04 PM

For the uninitated, Phelps funds these ventures by being such an ass at these demonstrations that people inevitably attack him physically. Then he sues the people who attack him, the letter of the law is on his side since he was only practicing free speech and the attacks were technically unwarranted, and his lawyers win him settlements large enough to allow him to live off of this cycle of trolling and suing.

Posted by Gomez | October 26, 2007 12:20 PM

These folks are scum. They protested a family friend's funeral after he was killed in Iraq.

However, I do agree with some of the posters that it is a slippery slope to place limits on freedom of speech, no matter how disgusting the speech is.

Posted by Clint | October 26, 2007 12:21 PM

Phelps is never going to die. Because he's spawned a sick little nation to carry on his syphilitic gospel. It's like a miniature Utah in Kansas.

Posted by Donovan | October 27, 2007 7:04 AM

Check out fighting words.

Basically, the US supreme court has established that words which "by their very utterance inflict injury or tend to incite an immediate breach of the peace" do not qualify for first amendment protection.

With no disrespect to interested homos & homosexualists, my amateur legal analysis is that rabble like the Watchmen don't come anywhere near surpassing the "fighting words" standard in the spectacular way that Fred Phelps does when his gang gleefully pisses on the grief of innocent families.

Posted by Eric Arrr | October 27, 2007 1:03 PM

The words were not directly aimed at any one person in particular. This precendent was set in the Termeniello case when an anti semitic evangelist was speaking in chicago. The amount of protesters outside numbered higher than those in attendance of the Speech and were causing a lot of property damage,BUT. The supreme court said it offended Termeniello's First Amendment rights to stop him from speaking because he was simply advocating an ideal, and not actually saying to one indivdual "you are a gay and you deserve to die" they are saying "being gay is the reason for all this mess," ...i dont agree with this at all, but it is the law...

Posted by NickDrake | October 30, 2007 12:50 PM

I think it's time to turn the tables. Sick of Bible thumpers spouting their hatred at gay pride parades and trying to recruit? How about the next time you see a church doing this show up on their doorsteps on Sunday and give them a taste of their own medicine. I'm sure they'd welcome a flock of gays invading their brainwashing session.

Posted by Tony | November 1, 2007 12:38 AM


What you say might be true, but is irrelevant to the argument being made by the prosecution. IANAL, but if you follow the link provided above you see that the test is to determine: "whether the defendant's actions would be highly offensive...were extreme and outrageous, and...were so offensive and shocking as to not be entitled to First Amendment protection." The judge's quotes.

It does not matter whether the statements were directed at any particular individual, if the judge is not wrong.

Posted by Axx | November 1, 2007 5:02 PM

“Its like a miniature Utah in Kansas.” I just moved to Utah from San Diego and what does that mean? Phelps has said that the coal miners that were recently killed in Utah are burning in hell and threatened to protest a funeral out here.
If you are referring to the FLDS chruch then I guess I understand, but utah in general is not like that.

Posted by alana | November 2, 2007 11:40 PM

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