Albert Snyder lost his marine son in Iraq, but today he gained almost $11 million in compensatory and punitive damages from Fred Phelps' Westboro Baptist Church of Kansas. (According to the claims of the defendants, there is no money to pay any of these damages, though that's hardly the point.)
Phelps and his churchmembers, especially his two daughters and other relations, are well known for the protests they stage around the country at events of all stripes. Whatever the event, their protest always has the same theme: God hates fags! Their signs are always some variation on that message and their website is even godhatesfags.com. Phelps and his kith and kin spend more time and energy thinking about homosexuality and gay sex than a whole circuit party and RSVP cruise of gay men combined. Among their more spectacular protests was their performance at Matthew Shepard's funeral, where their signs read, among other things, "Matthew is in Hell".
The reason they have been ordered to pay Snyder $2.9 million in compensatory damages, $6 million in punitive damages and $2 million more for causing emotional distress, is their protest of Snyder's son's funeral. Snyder wasn't gay, nor does the Phelps crowd care. Instead, they have decided that the reason that things like 9/11 and the debacle in Iraq have occurred is because of the tolerance of gays and lesbians in the US. In this, they share a line of reasoning with the unjustly mourned Jerry Falwell and that master of the legpress Pat Robertson. But the Phelps put their signs where their fellow-God-is-zapping-us theorists' mouths are. They protest at the funerals of fallen soldiers in order to point out what they take the iniquity of the US to be. In doing so, they villify the dead who have fallen for the country they take to be evil and they cause a great deal of pain to the families.
They are horrible and dastardly people. And, I imagine, if there is a Hell, they will be quite welcome in it. (It seems to me that Jesus said something about mistreating orphans and widows.)
But the issue that is important legally is whether they have a right to their very distasteful protests. Snyder's argument was that his privacy was invaded. But of course, they didn't enter his home; they didn't trespass, or at least that's not the claim. The attorney for the Snyder's rightly called the Phelpses bullies who attack the weak, and asked for a high judgment from the jury "that says don't do this in Maryland again. Do not bring your circus of hate to Maryland again." That seems designed to chill speech, hateful speech to be sure, but speech, indeed.
As much as I hate their message, it seems to part of me, that it is the really hateful messages that test our commitment to the ideas expressed in the Bill of Rights.