Thursday, March 24, 2011

Westboro Baptist and Civil Liability

On March 2, 2011, the United States Supreme Court published its decision in Snyder vs. Phelps. The case itself has been commonly referred to as the Westboro Case and has been championed by some as a landmark decision protecting the First Amendment Rights of all Americans. What’s been lost in the media frenzy surrounding the decision are the facts and circumstances which caused Albert Snyder to file suite against Fred W. Phelps, Sr., Phelps’relatives and the church he founded, Westboro Baptist.

Lance Corporal Matthew Snyder died in Iraq in 2006. His father, Albert, selected the catholic church in Snyder’s hometown of Westminster, Maryland as the site for his son’s funeral. Fred Phelps and several of his relatives came to Westminster seeing an opportunity to “protest”what they believe to be seriously wrong with America.This was nothing new for Phelps assimilar protests had been conducted at military funerals throughout the United States. Typically,the picketers would display such signs as “Thank God for Dead Soldiers,” “America is Doomed,”“Priest Rape Boys,” “You’re Going to Hell.” Following the funeral, members of the Westboro Church allegedly posted online the following “epic,” “God blessed you Mr. and Mrs. Snyder,with a resource and his name was Matthew. He was an arrow in your quiver: and thanks to God for the comfort the child could bring you, you had a DUTY to prepare that child to serve the LORD his GOD - - PERIOD! YOU DID just the opposite - - you raised him for the devil.”

Albert Snyder brought suit against Phelps, his relatives and Westboro alleging, among other “torts”, Intentional Infliction of Emotional Distress. The jury awarded Snyder $2.9 million dollars in compensatory damages and $8 million dollars in punitive damages. Subsequently, the punitive damage award was reduced by the District Court to $2.1 million dollars. Phelps appealed to the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals which reversed the jury’s decision. On March 2, 2011, the Supreme Court, affirmed the decision of the Fourth Circuit. The Supreme Court decision was written by Chief Justice John Roberts, considered to be one of the finest jurist of our time. Justice Roberts concluded that “because this nation has chosen to protect even hurtful speech on public issues to insure that public debate is not stifled, Westboro must be shielded from tort liability for its picketing in this case.” Certainly, the First Amendment must be protected but that protection should not extended in such a degree that a person who intentionally inflicts emotional distress upon another will not be held accountable and responsible through our civil justice system. The injured party must have the absolute right to seek compensation through our civil justice system. Anyone who intentionally, negligently or recklessly causes injury must be held accountable in our civil justice system, otherwise we would be relegated to barbaric reactions to address grievances. The jury held Fred Phelps and Westboro accountable and the First Amendment should not relieve them of their accountability.

Justice Samuel Alito, in his well reasoned dissenting opinion wrote, “our profound national commitment to free and open debate is not a license for the vicious verbal assault that occurred in this case”. Judge Alito noted that Albert Snyder is not a public figure, the First Amendment protection should not shield a person from responsibility when that person inflicts “severe emotional injury on private persons at times of intense emotional sensitivity by launching such a vicious verbal attack that made no contribution to public debate.” “ To protect against such injury, most jurisdictions permit recovery in tort for the intentional infliction of emotional distress”. This is what occurred in the original jury trial.

Under the guise of First Amendment protection, what occurred is an assault on our civil justice system. The right to have one’s claims addressed by a jury in a proper civil proceeding is a paramount right in our free society. To shield one from responsibility and prohibit accountability for such outrageous conduct strikes at the heart of our civil justice system. Justice Alito had it right, that if the Plaintiff (Snyder) establishes that Defendant’s conduct was “so outrageous in character, and so extreme in degree, as to go beyond all possible bounds of decency, and to be regarded as atrocious, utterly intolerable in a civilized community,” then the Defendants (Phelps and Westboro) must be responsible.

Submitted by:
James T. Davis, Esquire
Davis & Davis