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Mar. 30 2010 - 8:51 pm | 1,388 views | 3 recommendations | 29 comments

Court orders father of dead Marine to pay demented funeral protesters – we need to help

LOS ANGELES - JANUARY 27:  Jael Phelps a membe...

Image by Getty Images via Daylife

In March of 2006, Marine Lance Cpl. Matthew Snyder of Westminster, Maryland died in a vehicle accident while serving in Iraq. Later that month, his body was returned to his hometown for burial at what was to be a private family service.

Sadly, there was absolutely nothing private about it.

As the family tried to bury their young Marine, protesters from the Kansas based Westboro Baptist Church, led by Reverend Fred Phelps, picketed the funeral carrying signs with printed slogans such as “God Hates You” and “Thank God for Dead Soldiers” as they loudly chanted their protests with the clear intent of disrupting the funeral.

The members of the Westboro Church believe that the combat deaths suffered in Iraq and Afghanistan are God’s retribution for America’s tolerance of gay men and lesbian women. This was not their first protest disrupting the funerals of men and women who have died in battle nor was it their last. Understanding that this is an excellent device for getting attention and pursuing what they believe to be their First Amendment right to free speech, Rev. Phelps has chosen this as the method to make his point.

Showing extraordinary tolerance, Albert Snyder, the father of Lance Cpl. Snyder, sued the group – seeking $5 million in damages for invasion of privacy and intentional infliction of emotional distress. I say that Mr. Snyder exercised extraordinary tolerance because, had it been me, I seriously doubt that any of the protesters would have survived their disgusting behavior in suitable physical condition to respond to a lawsuit.

A Baltimore jury agreed that Phelps and his Westboro Baptist Church mob acted despicably and awarded the father $11 million in damages, an amount that was reduced by the judge to the requested $5 million. However, the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals disagreed with the lower court, stating that the signs carried by Rev. Phelps and his thugs contained “imaginative and hyperbolic rhetoric” protected by the First Amendment. Such messages are intended to spark debate and cannot be reasonably read as factual assertions about an individual.

While it remains unclear what the 4th Circuit’s three judge panel was smoking the day they reached their decision, the Supreme Court has agreed to hear the case where we can only hope that they will show a higher degree of judicial discretion and understanding of the law.

Now, it gets worse.

Yesterday, the 4th Circuit ordered Mr. Snyder to pay Westboro Baptist Church the sum of $16,500 to cover Westboro’s costs in appealing the lower court verdict – this despite Mr. Snyder’s attorneys’ entreaties to the court that Mr. Snyder was in no position to pay these charges.

The insanity of this situation speaks for itself.

The Founders no more intended first amendment rights to extend to a crowd picketing a funeral where a grieving family is burying their dead than they intended extending these protections to someone screaming fire in a crowded theater. Can you imagine the reaction of the Founding Fathers had someone done this at the burial of one of our Revolutionary War dead? Can any rational human being believe that this was conduct they intended to protect?

The insult added to the injury leaves Mr. Snyder stuck with a large bill he cannot hope to pay as he waits to see if SCOTUS reverses the order.

A fund has been set up to help out Al Snyder with this bill. Please note that none of the money received will go to lawyers as Snyder’s counsel are representing him pro bono. To contribute, go to www.matthewsnyder.org. Or you can send a check payable to “Al Snyder Fund” to the following address:
Barley Snyder LLC
100 East Market Street
York, PA 17401

This would be a good one for showing your support not only for our soldiers, but for the sensible rule of law in this country. The creeps from Westboro Baptist Church need to know that people will not stand by and allow these obscene jerks to continue this sick behavior unaddressed.

I’ve made my contribution – please send whatever you can.

UPDATE: On Tuesday night’s “The Spin Factor”, Bill O’Reilly stepped up and said he would pay the complete bill for Albert Snyder. As I understand it, the legal team would still appreciate donations to cover the continued costs of bringing this matter before the Supreme Court. Keep an eye on the website posted for information. And, while we are at it, it couldn’t hurt to take note of the fact that (a) Bill O’Reilly did a very nice thing and (b) sometimes things are just so obviously wrong, it doesn’t matter where you fall on the political divide.


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  1. collapse expand

    Thanks for posting the link and donation info Rick.

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    I apologize for not addressing your post rick, but I have a true/slant issue that I do not know how to approach. I like to follow Julia Ioffe, the TS contributor from Russia. I am especially interested in her posts from the last several days given the attack on the Russian subway. However, she has had problems for the last several days. For a while, it would not let me access her. Then, I could access her, but attempting to click on the full article would give me an “error 404- not found error.” I tried to send her a message on the “email me tips” thing on the right side of the page, but it would not let me. Could you alert the people at true/slant to these issues? I am very interested in her take on the matter, and would be greatly appreciative if you would forward this message to the powers that be.


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    You’re a good man, Rick. Donation on the way.

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    According to the group for this on Facebook (available through the given link):

    “GREAT NEWS! Bill O’Reilly has just announced that he will pay the entire amount that AL SNYDER owes to those people!!!!

    PLEASE keep in mind that any donations in excess will be used to begin the Matt Snyder Fund!”

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    Kudos to O’Reilly. I love that in the 2010 state of affairs he has become one of the more reasoned and left (only by comparison) on-air personalities at Fox News.

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    Good for O’Reilly. Normally, don’t like him. This was a good thing.


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    I can’t stand this fucking Phelps creep! I wish he’d take his family of followers and go live in some cave with Bin Laden and the other religious dickheads! I think I’ll make a donation.

    That said, I have to wonder about the rest of this post. In a normal case, are parties often compensated for the costs of appeals? If so, then I’m afraid Phelps is entitled to the same.

    And I have trouble understanding how holding signs up to protest a war, regardless of where you get your inspiration, is something that isn’t covered by the First Amendment. Was the Phelps crowd standing at the graveside? Or were they outside the cemetery and just able to be heard at the graveside? If the former, then they were probably trespassing as well. But if it was the latter, how is this somehow outside the protections we all hold dear?

    Suppose I stood outside the cemetery with a sign that said “Bush and Cheney killed our soldiers!” or “Bush and Cheney killed your son” as the cars pulled into the entrance. Suppose I could be heard yelling “Bush is a murderer!” and “Cheney should burn in hell!” It would certainly be in poor taste to demonstrate at a soldier’s funeral, and people may be right to say that I’m a real asshole. But is it not my right to stand on the side of a public street and protest?

    Is there something I’m missing here?

    • collapse expand

      You’re not missing anything – but one of the recognized limitations of first amendment rights speaks to the ‘where’ and the ‘when’. Clearly, Phelps and crowd are within their rights to carry signs and protest, so long as they comply with local permit requirements. However, is this the right ‘where’ and ‘when’ if they are going to seriously infringe of an important privacy right and intentionally inflict emotional distress under these circumstances? They could have had their demonstration well out of the view of the mourners at that funeral and I would have defended their right.
      As for paying costs, yes, it is typical. However, the appellate court had the latitude to delay ordering the payment pending the outcome of the Supreme Court hearing. Under the circumstances, I think that would have been appropriate.

      In response to another comment. See in context »
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        I agree with the last point. The Court absolutely should delay the payment until the case reaches a final outcome. If the Supremes decide in the family’s favor, does Bill O’ get his money back? Wouldn’t it be some kind of sick pleasure watching Bill have to sue Phelps for the money he gave him?!?

        As for the rest of it, Rick, I disagree. Does one really need to get a permit to have a small demonstration on the side of the road that doesn’t interfere with traffic? Seems like a pretty stiff policy if that’s the way it works. Hell, do you think the Founders would have supported making political protesters get governmental permission? I doubt it.

        I read the complaint on the Snyder site – that’s some pretty weak stuff. They sued Phelps for making comments about them on his own website? Could Sarah Palin sue you for doing the same?

        They even include that Phelps said they raised their son to support the Catholic Church, which they call the “largest pedophile machine in the history of the entire world!” Shit! That’s much milder language than I would use to describe the church. Could I be sued if I express my opinion that all those who continue to donate to the church are responsible for any current and future acts of child rape by priests?

        And if they can sue Phelps for saying they worship the devil (Pope), can I as an atheist sue if someone says I believe in God? Do we really want to open the courts up to suits involving imaginary beings? Like I said – weak.

        I think it’s a real stretch. Again, I think Phelps is a fucking disgrace. I just have a hard time limiting speech just because I find it offensive. Nice speech doesn’t need protection.

        In response to another comment. See in context »
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          Again, it’s not about the speech – it’s about the where and the when. I agree that Phelps can say whatever he wants on his website so long as it is not libelous. But in sight of a funeral is not the time nor the place because I think there is a balancing need to defend the privacy right. He can say whatever he wants if he is not impinging of privacy.
          As for permits, it depends on the city, but, yes, most cities do require permits for public demonstrations. I didn’t make the rules – but they do exist.

          In response to another comment. See in context »
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            I knew cities required permits. I just thought they were for larger, more disruptive, protests.

            So are you simply saying that anywhere within sight of a funeral service should be off limits? Would that also mean that I couldn’t stand outside the cemetery with an american flag, and a sign that said “Rest in peace Hero” or “Honor our soldiers?” I’d still be infringing on their privacy, albeit with a more supportive message. No – my guess is they wouldn’t worry about their privacy in that case.

            In response to another comment. See in context »
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        Mr. Ungar,

        I agree with you in general that Mr. Phelps and his group are despicable human beings. That said, I suggest you use this link: http://www.citmedialaw.org/sites/citmedialaw.org/files/2009-09-24-Snyder%20v.%20Phelps%20Appellate%20Decision.pdf to read page five of the 4th Circuit opinion regarding this case. It would appear that Phelps notified the local police authority of his intention to picket the funeral. Additionally, Phelps conducted his protest in an area away from the funeral and in accordance with the local authorities directives. Mr. Snyder was unaware of the protest during the actual funeral ceremony and only noticed the Phelps protest later in the day. Given your argument above, these seem to me to be critical facts. I don’t like Mr. Phelps, or his abuse of “free speech” anymore than you do, unfortunately, I have to defend his right to nasty behavior in this case. Whether, or not, his behavior was an invasion of privacy and an intentional infliction of emotional distress are other questions. As you are no doubt aware this case has been referred to, and accepted by, the Supreme Court of the U.S. for further adjudication.

        In response to another comment. See in context »
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        Mr. Ungar, while I agree that the courts requirements that Mr. Snyder pay Mr. Phelps’ legal costs are outrageous, and I agree that Mr. Phelps actions are odious, I must, unfortunately, take issue with your description of the facts in this case. You imply that Phelps intruded his protests upon the unwilling Snyder family during the funeral for their fallen son. Further, you state in your follow up commentary that the Phelps’ would have been within their rights had they complied with local regulations and not invaded the privacy of the Snyder family. I suggest it might have been helpful had you read the citation of facts contained in the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals decision. Accordingly the weblink to that decision is
        here: http://www.citmedialaw.org/sites/citmedialaw.org/files/2009-09-24-Snyder%20v.%20Phelps%20Appellate%20Decision.pdf

        You will note on page 5 of this document that Mr. Phelps did indeed notify, in advance, the local police agency of his intention to protest the Snyder funeral event. Further, Phelps and his unholy, no doubt unwashed, minions fully complied with the local rules established to facilitate his protest in an area away from the funeral rites. Further, Mr. Snyder indicated to the courts that he was not even aware that the protest had been held until later in the day. Given these facts, I unfortunately find myself forced to defend the ugly man Phelps in his expression of his rights to free speech. Whether these acts, and the later publication of diparaging opinions on the Phelps website, constitute an invasion of privacy or, an intentional infliction of emotional distress, are distinct issues unconnected to the free speech claims of Phelps. As you are no doubt aware, this case has been appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court and has been accepted to that docket.

        In response to another comment. See in context »
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    Mark- I think I would say that if you were standing in view of someone burying someone in their family, who happened to be a soldier, and you were holding up a supportive sign, it would be up to those involved if they perceived it as an invasion of their privacy. If they approached you and asked you to leave because they wanted it to be a private affair, would you stay? If you did, you would be infringing on their rights while expressing your own right to say what you wish. Let me ask it this way — if someone stands in front of your house, on the street, and hold up signs and protest loudly against you because they heard you like to eat green beans and they strenuously object to the picking green beans (only red beans should be eaten in their opinion) would this be a suitable exercise of their free speech right when you can’t sleep at night because they are yelling in the street?

    • collapse expand

      Well, if you put the bean people in the day instead of at night – you know, no disturbing the peace and such – and you put them there once, as if outside of a cemetery, and thus not continual harassment,……… then I’d have to say “Power to the beans!” And I’d have all my friends come over for a bean fest in the front yard!

      As for me staying if a family asked me to leave – no, I wouldn’t stay. But I’m not an asshole like Phelps. (Some might disagree, but I’m sticking to my version) :) I think, though, one of the prices we pay for our freedoms is that we often must tolerate the assholes among us. I just don’t think this case illustrates the best place to draw the line.

      In response to another comment. See in context »
  9. collapse expand

    I’m either on here twice, or I’m not here at all. Either way, it probably doesn’t mean much in the great scheme. If twice, I apologize for my redundancy, if not at all, well, screw it, I tried.

  10. collapse expand

    Good on Bill O’Reilly. To me, this case illustrates the futility of absolutes. It’s easy to say that speech should absolutely be free, and then you have Phelps. Perhaps in this case he and his “flock” toed within the lines of legality, but personal judgement has to enter into drawing the lines of acceptable behavior. And if Bill O’Reilly and I can agree that this speech shouldn’t be free, the vast majority of Americans are going to be somewhere between us.

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    About Me

    I am an attorney in Southern California, and a frequent writer, speaker and consultant on health care policy and politics. To that end, I am active member of the Association of Health Care Journalists. Based in beautiful Santa Monica, California, I'm very pleased to have the opportunity to be a contributing editor to True/Slant. I've recently finished a book designed to make the health care debate understandable to the average reader, and expect it to be out in the next five months or earlier. In my 'spare time', I continue to write for television and, occasionally, for comic books.

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