The “religious” group that runs runs the website “God Hates Fags” and specializes in picketing at the funerals of fallen soldiers, including some here in South Dakota, is in the news again. This time luckily it isn’t for another funeral disruption though it is related to that act as yesterday the Fred Phelps led Westboro Baptist Church, a group that claims that the deaths are God’s vengeance for allowing the homosexual lifestyle, was slapped hard in a court of law and was ordered to pay $11 million in damages for their disruption of a 2006 funeral.
The jury first awarded $2.9 million in compensatory damages. It returned in the afternoon with its decision to award $6 million in punitive damages for invasion of privacy and $2 million for causing emotional distress.
Constitutionally, this might be the next test for our free speech rights though some that are more knowledgeable of the law than I am contend this finding isn’t without precedent especially when applied to the tort laws.
Free speech doesn’t absolve people of responsibility for the damage they do, and most reasonable people would consider what Westboro’s minstrels of misery do very painful and completely inappropriate. Perhaps this might convince a few other victims to follow suit, pun intended, and ensure that Phelps’ moral bankruptcy gets matched by his financial bankruptcy.
Either way the Phelps followers are finding out that free speech isn’t necessarily “free” and it couldn’t have happened to a more deserving group. Appeals are sure to follow and the award could easily be overturned but hopefully some of the financial damages stick or at a minimum, the legal costs incurred will make it harder for them to afford to continue though I somehow doubt that will be the case.
Ultimately, it might be easier to muzzle any future hate speech from this group at the funerals of our veterans by not having to have the events in question. Unfortunately that option is even more unlikely than stifling them financially through court actions because of the Bush Administration’s desire to keep us in Iraq (and possibly into Iran) and the Democrats inability to stop him. In other words I doubt this is the last we will be hearing from the Westboro Baptist Church.
UPDATE: Fred Phelps was interviewed last night on CNN about this case.
UPDATE 2: Just listened to an interview with Shirley Phelps, one of Fred Phelps’ daughters, on Bubba The Love Sponge’s show on Sirius and believe it or not, she says that she is ecstatic over the verdict. First she says that this trial has made their cause the #1 search on Google (that’s a good thing for these nuts?) and that she is positive that it will be overturned on appeal because it wasn’t their actions but was instead their religion that was on trial which would make the whole circus unconstitutional.
Like I said, we haven’t seen the last from these wingnuts…