(CN) – Signs declaring “Thank God for dead soldiers” and “Fag troops” at the funeral of a Marine killed in Iraq may have been “distasteful and vulgar,” but they are nonetheless protected by the First Amendment, the 4th Circuit ruled, overturning a $5 million verdict against the Westboro Baptist Church.
The three-judge panel in Richmond, Va., vacated the verdict on the ground that it contradicted the Constitution.
Albert Snyder had sued the Topeka, Kan.-based church, founder Fred Phelps Sr., and Phelps’ daughters, Shirley Phelps-Roper and Rebekah Phelps-Davis, after they picketed his son’s funeral in Westminster, Md.
Snyder’s son, Matthew, died in Iraq in March 2006.
Phelps, his two daughters and four of his grandchildren traveled from Topeka to Westminster to protest the funeral. The fundamentalist church has 60 to 70 members, 50 of whom are related to its founder.
Their signs contained messages such as, “America is doomed,” “You’re going to hell,” “God hates the USA” and “Thank God for dead soldiers.”
Westboro church members believe that military deaths are God’s way of punishing the nation and the Army for tolerating homosexuality and other forms of immorality.
After the funeral, Phelps-Roper posted a self-styled “Epic” on the church’s Web site, godhatesfags.com, called “The Burden of Marine Lance Cpl. Matthew Snyder.” It stated that Albert Snyder and his ex-wife “taught Matthew to defy his creator,” “raised him for the devil” and “taught him that God was a liar.”
Snyder sued, accusing the defendants of five state-law tort claims: defamation, intrusion upon seclusion, publicity given to private life, intentional infliction of emotional distress and civil conspiracy.
The district judge dismissed the defamation and publicity claims, saying the speech was “essentially … religious opinion.” The remaining claims went to trial.
Snyder told the jury that the protest had taken an emotional toll on his family. “I [had] one chance to bury my son and they took the dignity away from it,” he said. “I cannot rebury my son. And for the rest of my life, I will remember what they did to me and it has tarnished the memory of my son’s last hour on earth.”
In October 2007, the jury awarded him $2.9 million in compensatory damages and $8 million in punitive damages. The district court reduced the punitive damage award to $2.1 million, for a total of $5 million.
Phelps and the Westboro church appealed, claiming the judgment contradicted the First Amendment’s protections on religious expression.
The Supreme Court has established that the First Amendment protects speech that can’t “reasonably [be] interpreted as stating actual facts” about a person, the appellate panel wrote.
That the verdict wasn’t in line with this constitutional protection, the court said, indicated that the lower court had given jurors too much leeway in deciding legal issues.
“The district court thus decided that it was for the jury – not the court – to assess the preliminary issue of the nature of the speech involved, and to then decide whether such speech was protected by the Free Speech Clause,” Judge King wrote.
Though this error justified a new trial, the court said a new trial wasn’t necessary if the church and its members could win their case on the merits.
And they could, the court concluded.
It noted that the district court, in a post-trial opinion, had incorrectly focused on whether Snyder was a public figure and whether the funeral was a public event.
The district court failed to examine the real issue: whether the statements were rhetorical hyperbole or could be interpreted as fact, the court ruled.
The 4th Circuit took up the issue and concluded that the defendants’ speech – “notwithstanding the distasteful and repugnant nature of the words” – merits First Amendment protection.
King paraphrased a colleague’s view in Kopf v. Skyrm that judges defending the Constitution “must sometimes share [their] foxhole with scoundrels of every sort, but to abandon the post because of poor company is to sell freedom cheaply. It is the fair summary of history to say that the safeguards of liberty have often by forged in controversies involving not very nice people.”