I've written about the Westboro Baptist Church before, though I didn't mention their name. I'd rather not in this case either, but I have to as they're prominently featured in the news today, including this article from the New York Daily News.
Albert Snyder's son was a U.S. marine killed in the line of duty while serving in Iraq. At his funeral, the Westboro Baptist Church appeared waving signs thanking God for "dead marines," among other well-known hate speech. Albert Snyder sued for emotional distress, and initially won a multi-million dollar award from a jury in a Maryland court. The church appealed, and won, nullifying the award to Snyder. The kicker: the court granted the church's request for reimbursement of legal costs, and Albert Snyder now owes them about $16,000.
In short, a man's son dies for his country, a hate group protests at the funeral (claiming that the son is now in Hell, among other things), and now Albert Snyder has to pay them $16,000. It hardly seems fair.
I first learned about this from skeptics via an Internet chat room, and the reaction was along the lines of "Damn, that sucks. I hate those guys." An Internet poll had 92% of participants claiming that the court made a mistake in this case.
And while I certainly agree that the church's actions and very existence are an affront to humanity, I'm glad they were granted their legal costs by the court.
Yep, that's right... I'm supporting the court. They did the right thing.
It's simple: a suit was filed, and the appeals court ruled that the church's first amendment rights protected them from the suit, so they deserve to have their court costs reimbursed by the plaintiffs. The system worked, as it should. Say what you want about the church, but they know what they're doing. They know the law, and they follow it, and despite my personal feelings, I'm glad the courts realized this. Judge Robert B. King wrote:
As utterly distasteful as these signs are they involve matters of public concern, including the issues of homosexuals in the military, the sex-abuse scandal within the Catholic Church, and the political and moral conduct of the United States and its citizens.
The three judge panel split the vote 2:1.
I only wish the that the courts had been as fair to the JREF. We have been sued many times over the years, never successfully, but we've had to pay court costs each time. Though we've asked to be compensated for our legal costs in the face of some obviously fraudulent suits (we were sued by "God," for example), we've never received a cent. The situation as it is right now is that anyone willing to pony up enough money can sue a non-profit group such as the JREF, and force them to pay legal costs... even if they don't have a legal leg to stand on. This is a state issue, and though the circumstances are different from Snyder's, the JREF is being penalized for using its right to free speech by what appears to me to be an oversight in the legal statutes.
So what do we do when groups we loathe are protected by the same rights we want to be protected by? We celebrate it. There is a reason Lady Justice is wearing a blindfold. If your battle is with Westboro, do your fighting in other ways than by wishing the courts would be prejudicial towards them. Protest yourself, or write articles, or... my favorite solution: ignore them completely. Whatever you choose, hopefully you'll follow the law and receive the same protections they did.
All that said, my heart goes out to Albert Snyder and his family. The Supreme Court has agreed to hear the case, and if they overturn the decision of the Court of Appeals, Snyder won't have to pay. But just in case, a fund has been started to help make the payment should that be the final outcome. If you're interested, you can donate at matthewsnyder.org.
Freedom of speech is an essential tool for skeptics, and the only way we can have it is if it's universal. We shouldn't want it any other way.