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← The Supreme Court and Fred Phelps

The Supreme Court and Fred Phelps - Comments

debaser71's Avatar Comment 1 by debaser71

I want Phelps to win.

And I'm going to wonder, in advance, where are the supposed libertarians and/or traditional conservative who say they hate lawyers and lawsuits and big payouts and such?

To me the most important fact in this case is tat the Phelp's were following the law and their protest was lawful.

Tue, 09 Mar 2010 16:46:00 UTC | #447733

Pete.K's Avatar Comment 2 by Pete.K

Good job old Freddy didn't try that in the Untied Kingdom, he would have been locked up for inciting hatred on several counts. Free speech is all very well, but there are limits, and Freddy boy has stepped too far over the line.

Tue, 09 Mar 2010 16:53:00 UTC | #447734

Mr. Forrest's Avatar Comment 3 by Mr. Forrest

I hope the deluded fuck wins as well... he is in my opinion af disgusting, vile, homophobic death-cultist. But the right to free speech has to protect unpopular speech whether we agree or not.

That said, I hope the Phelps get ridiculed mocked, ostracised and verbally abused to the fullest extent of human imagination. The willful infliction of further emotional turmoil on grieving families and friends is so utterly repugnant, no matter what these families might believe in.

Tue, 09 Mar 2010 16:56:00 UTC | #447737

JSB2024's Avatar Comment 4 by JSB2024

Freedom of speech. Imagine if these people were more powerful. Doesn't their ideology count as incitement of violence, even incitement of genocide against homosexuals through invocation of divine right?

Tue, 09 Mar 2010 16:58:00 UTC | #447738

jimbob's Avatar Comment 5 by jimbob

I hope the obnoxious SOB wins too! Not only is he the best advertisement against religion we could ask for, but if he loses blasphemy laws will get support as well.

Tue, 09 Mar 2010 17:03:00 UTC | #447740

sara g's Avatar Comment 6 by sara g

Phelps is a deeply, deeply unpleasant person. It's a shame that he has no manners and no compassion. But it remains true that it is not illegal to be an asshole.

Tue, 09 Mar 2010 17:12:00 UTC | #447742

hungarianelephant's Avatar Comment 7 by hungarianelephant

I agree with debaser71 and Mr. Forrest [edit - and jimbob]. I hope Phelps wins this case.

However, I also hope the SCOTUS decides it on narrower grounds than the 4th Circuit. I don't see this as a First Amendment issue. I see it as a Due Process issue. If Maryland had said that protests could not take place within 200 yards of a funeral, that seems a perfectly reasonable time/place/manner restriction. The point is that Maryland did not say this. There was no law against the WBC doing what they were doing, even if it was way beyond the bounds of socially acceptable behaviour (which presumably was the whole point).

So instead, one family takes out a civil suit under the makey-uppey tort of "intentional infliction of emotional distress". It is intended to shut down that which the lawmakers had already declined to shut down, and to do so in a selective way*. Plaintiff's counsel actually said this explicitly. He asked for an award that would tell the defendants they were not welcome in Maryland. That is no better than mob rule, particularly when coupled to punitive damages, which in my book are morally and constitutionally dubious anyway.

The Wyeth case will be interesting too, not least because the justices will have to revisit what they said in the Levine case and try to explain exactly what the hell they were all talking about. But I suspect this is not why the article has been brought to our attention.

* EDIT 2 - Come to that, a $10m award against a small church is effectively trying to shut down its entire operation, not just its Maryland funeral protests.

Tue, 09 Mar 2010 17:14:00 UTC | #447743

Tintern's Avatar Comment 8 by Tintern

It is indeed interesting how free speech is interpreted in democracies. Phelps can do this legally yet the way the neocons jump on anyone who says a word against the war, claiming it's disrespecting the soldiers, you would think that every GOP member would be out with his NRA approved sidearm taking shots at these guys.

Tue, 09 Mar 2010 17:18:00 UTC | #447746

chawinwords's Avatar Comment 9 by chawinwords

There was a time in the U.S. when all states had a number of insane asylums. During the period 1850 until the mid-early 20th Century, one of the main diagnoses for a large number of the institutionalized was called "religious excitement."

But sadly, most of those insane asylums have been closed over the years, and people who were once protected from the public, and the public who was once protected from the mentally ill, has ended. Instead, depending upon a multitude of brain medications, those poor once institutionalized souls were dumped onto the streets, and the city parks, etc.

However, many of the most severe cases have found their way into religious cults, while acquiring microphones and television cameras -- and some of the most insane, promote street rallies, propounding their insanity while protected under the concept of Freedom of Speech.

At least this is another way of looking at the reality.

Tue, 09 Mar 2010 18:04:00 UTC | #447759

Roger Stanyard's Avatar Comment 10 by Roger Stanyard

Is Phelps any worse than many a fundamentalist pastor in the USA. He may be more publicly "outspoken" but I suspect that he is saying what is all to frequently said behind closed doors by Bible believing Calvinists.

Quote frankly, from what I know about him, he is a moderate in comparison with Gary North and Rousas Rushdoony who have advocated buring people alive or stoning them to death. Rushdoony's book Institutes of Biblical Law appears to be popular amongst Southern Baptist Convention pastors.

Indeed much of the fundamentalist movement in the USA is a death wish cult.

Being vile appears to be par for the course amongst fundamentalists.

Phelps isn't a one off abberation in American society. He is a product of large swaths of it. It's a country where the Book of Revelation has widespread influence. (Unlike Europe, I guess.)

Any cursory knowledge of Biblical literalists and YECers seems to support this.

See Fundies Say the Darndest Things for what the fundamentalist on the ground, so to speak, thinks.

Tue, 09 Mar 2010 18:05:00 UTC | #447760

DamnDirtyApe's Avatar Comment 11 by DamnDirtyApe

I thought it was a bit of a travesty of free speech when we banned the Phelps from entering the UK.

Tue, 09 Mar 2010 18:11:00 UTC | #447764

TheLordHumungus's Avatar Comment 12 by TheLordHumungus

I also want this guy to win, but I am ashamed that this vile group does not get the same ridicule that Hitler would get if he came back to life and started demonstrations outside of synagogues. Everywhere they go they should be verbally abused and insulted. The only weapon against free speech is better speech.

Tue, 09 Mar 2010 18:12:00 UTC | #447765

jcob82's Avatar Comment 13 by jcob82

Free speech must be protected however I sympathize with the families at the funerals.

Tue, 09 Mar 2010 18:25:00 UTC | #447770

Summer Seale's Avatar Comment 14 by Summer Seale

Everyone here who hasn't seen it yet should watch the Louis Theroux episode "The Most Hated Family in America" where he spends several days with the Phelps family.

And, by the way, I actually hope he loses. It isn't because I like putting limits on free speech - I'm generally against that. But the fact is that protesting funerals is about the best way to get your ass kicked in any society. Heck, I'm an atheist and I know that if he came around to a funeral I was attending, I'd be hard pressed not to do something violent in retaliation. That's one place you just want to give people some room to mourn their losses, no matter what religion or lack thereof they happen to be part of.

I'm sorry, I just think that Phelps goes over the line when he protests at funerals. There are some things that you just don't do out of decency. It has nothing to do with religion or even free speech and it has everything to do with how we act as a society.

I can be all for pushing the boundaries of society at times, but this is one area where I don't think it is necessary to push. I think he is morally wrong in every sense, and that has nothing to do with a religious (or lack thereof) perspective. He's just a fucking nutcase and I hope they shut him up on this point.

Tue, 09 Mar 2010 18:26:00 UTC | #447771

robotaholic's Avatar Comment 15 by robotaholic

My uncle's funeral was yesterday. I wouldn't want a bunch of assholes picketing the funeral service for sure.

Do they have a right to be assholes? yes Did we have a right to have a solemn funeral without interruption by picketers? yes

Tue, 09 Mar 2010 18:31:00 UTC | #447774

rod-the-farmer's Avatar Comment 16 by rod-the-farmer

I wonder if the family & friends of the deceased walked over and kicked Phelps in the source from which his family came, would the police turn a blind eye ? Tough to do, if there was a camera filing the activity.

Tue, 09 Mar 2010 18:39:00 UTC | #447779

JHJEFFERY's Avatar Comment 17 by JHJEFFERY

I do not comment on the size of the award of the lower court.

However, this is not necessarily a free speech issue. The First Amendment protects speech, within some limitations from government interference. It does not operate to shield people from being required to compensate those whom they intentionally injure. This was a civil case, and the jury was apparently convinced that Phelps had intended to, and did maliciously cause harm. The tort of intentional infliction of emotioal distress is (I think) actionable in every state in the union.

There are two levels of protection for free speech: prior restraint (frowned upon--almost never approved) and criminal prosecution. A judgment for an injured party falls into neither category.

When a plaintiff can prove that someone intentionally harmed him, the plaintiff is entitled to damages. This is as it should be. The standard of proof is quite high in these cases, however.

That having been said, I have not read the Fourth District's opinion which may, or may not, change my alleged mind.


Think of this verdict like one of slander. Althoug

Tue, 09 Mar 2010 18:40:00 UTC | #447780

viralmeme's Avatar Comment 18 by viralmeme

"I want Phelps to win", debaser71

A troll ..

"And I'm going to wonder, in advance, where are the supposed libertarians and/or traditional conservative who say they hate lawyers and lawsuits and big payouts and such?"

and invoking the strawman ..

"To me the most important fact in this case is that the Phelp's were following the law and their protest was lawful"

That's to be decided by a Court of Law. Most anyone with a sence of decency would find picketing a funeral in very bad taste.

Tue, 09 Mar 2010 18:44:00 UTC | #447783

Mitch Kahle's Avatar Comment 19 by Mitch Kahle

Phelps will and must win this case.

As long as they are "protesting" on public property, they are protected by the First Amendment.

"Time, place and manner" restrictions are too broad for this situation.

As abhorrent as the Phelps clan's message is, and as sympathetic as we feel for the deceased, free speech requires protection from government regulation.

If Phelps loses, who's next for censorship: Dawkins? You and me?

Tue, 09 Mar 2010 18:45:00 UTC | #447785

Red Foot Okie's Avatar Comment 20 by Red Foot Okie

re: Phelps- it is conditions like these when I wish we could bring dueling back into fashion. Because I agree that what he's doing is LEGAL, but I'd like to see how tough he talked if his targets were LEGALLY able to demand satisfaction.

Tue, 09 Mar 2010 18:51:00 UTC | #447791

Christopher Davis's Avatar Comment 21 by Christopher Davis

Here's the thing, the guy suing Phelps wasn't even aware of the protest ubtil he saw it on television. This leads me to believe that there was no disruption of the funeral.

The WBC's actions are vile and reprehensible, but I'm not seeing a crime here. The soldier wasn't slandered (Phelp's claims that soldiers die not because of their "sins" but because of the "sins" of our nation). Sure he criticized the parents for raising the kid Catholic...but come on, how is that slanderous?

The whole "intentional emotional distress" thing is bullshit. You shouldn't be allowed to sue over hurt feelings. That being said, if Mr. Snyder and Mr. Phelps were to cross paths and Mr. Snyder felt like knocking Mr. Phelps on his ass, I don't think Mr. Snyder should be charged with assault either.

Tue, 09 Mar 2010 18:55:00 UTC | #447792

JHJEFFERY's Avatar Comment 22 by JHJEFFERY

Dear Mr. Davis:

"The whole "intentional emotional distress" thing is bullshit. You shouldn't be allowed to sue over hurt feelings. That being said, if Mr. Snyder and Mr. Phelps were to cross paths and Mr. Snyder felt like knocking Mr. Phelps on his ass, I don't think Mr. Snyder should be charged with assault either. "

With this, I must disagree. You are effectively saying that someone can commit assault over hurt feelings, but not sue for damages in a court of law. I really don't think corporeal, mano a mano punishment is the answer. I do not see this as a First Amendment issue. Why do you think someone who is intentially maligned out of spite should not have recourse to address his damages?


Tue, 09 Mar 2010 19:00:00 UTC | #447795

Dr. Strangegod's Avatar Comment 23 by Dr. Strangegod

No one should have the right to disrupt a funeral service. I'm all for freedom of speech, even freedom to be an asshole, but I would be in favor of a law barring or creating punishments for this type of behavior. I myself, if faced with such a thing, would happily beat them to within an inch of their lives and then go to trial. I'd win.

Tue, 09 Mar 2010 19:08:00 UTC | #447799

Steven Mading's Avatar Comment 24 by Steven Mading

The real tragedy here is that lying is perfectly acceptable under the law, it seems, provided you do it via religion. The fact that the Phelps family protests about totally unrelated causes at funerals of those who had nothing to do with their crazy claims about homosexuals isn't illegal (provided their protest stays where it was told to stay and doesn't constitute a physical hindrance to the proceedings by blocking movement). The fact that they cause "intentional emotional distress" should not be illegal either. What SHOULD be illegal, and sort of is but it's never enforced, is the fact that they tell slanderous lies. The fact that they the things they say are hateful isn't the problem. The fact that the hateful things are dishonest is the problem. If you're going to claim a causal link (as the Phelps' do) between a person's actions and bad consequences, then you are making an accusation that you should have the ability to back up. If your claim is that "you caused Y by doing X" (X = tolerating gays, Y = just about any bad thing the Phelps' care to use as their excuse to protest this week) then you should have to demonstrate why you made that claim and what your rationale was if you're going to go around making public statements to that effect, otherwise you are bearing false witness against somebody and that *is* in fact illegal.

But unfortunately THAT was not the grounds on which this case was filed. On the grounds that it was filed under - that everybody has a right not to be subjected to "intentional emotional distress", Phelps should win.

Is Phelps family guilty of doing something illegal? Yes - making false accusations of criminal acts he knows he can't back up. But good luck getting any US court to accept such a case because religion gets a free ride on the slander train. But is that the illegal thing this particular case is about? No. The issue it is arguing about is not something where he did anything illegal - protesting nearby a funeral in a fashion that caused hurt feelings.

The fact that his lies cause hurt feelings is a distraction from the real issue that his lies are false accusations made publicly and therefore fall under slander or libel.

But that court case, legally and morally right as it may be, will never happen. Once you can prosecute a preacher for the fact that his religious statements are making false accusations publicly, you open the floodgates to do the same to all the religious assholes who lie from the pulpit, and there's no way any US court will want to do that. The status quo insists that they pretend religion is off-limits from normal standards of honesty that legally apply in secular contexts (laws against libel, slander, and fraud are never applied to religious leaders like they should be.)

Tue, 09 Mar 2010 19:16:00 UTC | #447801

Topher's Avatar Comment 25 by Topher

There are two reasons the court awarded damages:

A. "Intrusion upon seclusion" [Restatement (Second) of Torts §652B]

According to the IT Law wiki (, a claimant must prove four elements:

1. there was an unauthorized intrusion or prying into his seclusion;
2. the intrusion was highly offensive to or objectionable to a reasonable person;
3. the matter intruded upon was private; and
4. the intrusion caused anguish and suffering.

B. "Intentional infliction of emotional distress" [Restatement (Second) of Torts §46]

Again, we have four elements:

1. The defendant must act intentionally or recklessly;
2. The defendant's conduct must be extreme and outrageous; and
3. The conduct must be the cause
4. of severe emotional distress.

The only reason I can see for this going to SCOTUS is that there is a possibility that the torts themselves are ruled unconstitutional or overly broad, because based on the torts themselves the original ruling seems to be completely correct, in my not-so-humble opinion. I am torn over this: I am rather outspoken in my defense of Amendment I, but Phelps often seems very close to the "shouting fire in a crowded theater" mindset.

Note: I'm not a lawyer, and anyone treating the above as solid legal advice is extremely foolish.

Tue, 09 Mar 2010 19:24:00 UTC | #447804

lackofgravitas's Avatar Comment 26 by lackofgravitas

Hmmm. Freedom of Speech. We in the UK don't have it (as noted previously). Having said that, I agree that everyone has the right to say what they want about anything. If it's wrong, they should be liable to penalties.

"Who steals my purse steals trash; 'tis something, nothing;
'Twas mine, 'tis his, and has been slave to thousands;
But he that filches from me my good name
Robs me of that which not enriches him,
And makes me poor indeed." W Shakespeare.

That's the crux for me. Free Speech is one ideal, but to picket a funeral and claim that the deceased is dead because of gay people exist is, to me, manipulative.

Here's why; I've watched Louis Theroux's doc and read Phelps' sons' article (here btw) and come to the conclusion that it's all about the money. If Phelps provokes enough outrage, but remains within the law ( I think he was trained as a lawyer?) Then sooner or later someone is going to sue him or his church. If he wins, he gets big bucks, but if he loses, he's being victimised for his beliefs; hence 1st amendment defence. He can't lose either way.

Follow the money. Then cut it off :) No tax exempt status for churches. Any.

And here's Louis Theroux

Just to remind you how hateful the WBC are.

Tue, 09 Mar 2010 19:30:00 UTC | #447812

JHJEFFERY's Avatar Comment 27 by JHJEFFERY


You should be a lawyer. I've been one for many years and I couldn't have phrased it better. Remember, though, the First Amendment protects against state action, it does not protect anyone from having to pay for the damage they cause. And for Steven Mading, I hope you understand (it was not so clear in your post) that defamation actions accrue to the individual who is harmed, not the state. There is no prohibition at all against lying in the absence of damages in such cases as slander and fraud, or in the case of the necessarily assumed damages to the state caused by perjury.


Tue, 09 Mar 2010 19:31:00 UTC | #447815

glenister_m's Avatar Comment 28 by glenister_m

Coincidentally pharyngula has a posting today about an anti-gay rights U.S. senator who recently came out of the closet.

So I immediately wondered about Fred Phelps...

It also brought to mind two points about free speech that most people don't understand:
- supporting free speech means that you have to support the right of people to make statements you don't agree with or find abhorrent
- free speech presupposes that people are going to check up on the facts (most don't, which is why a lie told often enough is believed by most people)
Makes me wonder if there is some kind of middle ground.

Tue, 09 Mar 2010 20:23:00 UTC | #447837

crookedshoes's Avatar Comment 29 by crookedshoes

This was in a local paper today. Folcroft is ONE MILE FROM MY HOUSE. I added the actual curseword where the paper put f------ a------. i think the actual words should be printed to show what a nice guy the court is standing in front of and defending at the expense of a cop.

Folcroft man: Profanity-laced letter is religious speech
Published: Tuesday, March 9, 2010


PHILADELPHIA — In a case that could test the limits of the First Amendment, a Folcroft man is claiming he had a constitutional right to send a profanity-laced letter to the home of a police officer who had recently issued him a ticket.

In a federal lawsuit, Nicholas Damato claims he was falsely prosecuted for making terroristic threats.

Damato, of Warwick Avenue, says that when he paid the ticket issued by Media Borough Police Officer Matthew Bellucci, he also included a letter that complained about Bellucci’s conduct and called the officer “stupid.”

The suit says Damato also sent a separate 24-word letter to Bellucci’s home in Middletown — with no return address and no signature — that cursed the officer out.

According to the suit, the letter said: “You will get what’s coming to you. God is just, and you will be punished. Fuck you! You are an asshole! A fucking asshole!”

Soon after, Damato says, he was slapped with charges of making terroristic threats and was subjected to an interrogation by state troopers.

As Damato’s lawyer sees it, the letter was merely Damato’s “opinion”and “not a threat.”

Attorney Scott Shields focused on the first 15 words and said his client was engaging in “protected religious speech identifying God’s righteousness and willingness to punish.”

Ultimately, the suit says, all charges against Damato were dismissed, the record of his arrest was expunged by Judge James F. Nilon Jr. and the prosecutors opted not to file any appeal from Nilon’s rulings.

Now Damato is pursuing a civil rights suit against the state police and Media Borough in which he claims he was subjected to a malicious prosecution.

Attorney Robert Scott, who serves as solicitor for Media Borough, said he has not yet been served with a copy of the suit and therefore cannot comment.

Tue, 09 Mar 2010 20:27:00 UTC | #447841

chawinwords's Avatar Comment 30 by chawinwords

Gosh Roger, I see you have met the brain of Rushdonny. His writings remind me so much of the madness displayed by Martin Luther in Luther's 76,000 hate screed against all Jews in his treatise, "On the Jews and Their Lies." Really ugly reading.

Yep, each of these many cults (better word than sects) all have some degree of hate enchantments against all or most others on the planet.

The only thing they hate worse than each other, by growing degrees, are the non-believers, those without any claimed "faith" in the unseen spirit world. Have no doubt, they appreciate Satan worshipers far more than they appreciate atheists. You just gotta have "faith" in the spirit world and ignore rationality in the real world to be considered worthy of existence.

Tue, 09 Mar 2010 21:10:00 UTC | #447849