Judge Reduces Verdict in Snyder v. Phelps, Westboro Baptist Church Still on the Hook for $5 Million

Earlier this week, a federal District Court judge in Maryland more than halved a $10.9 million jury verdict against the Westboro Baptist Church, a fundamentalist Christian church in Kansas, and three of its leading members. Among other things, the church publishes a website at "www.godhatesfags.com" and advocates the view that God kills U.S. soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan as punishment for America's tolerance of homosexuality. Westboro Baptist has gained notoriety in recent years for staging protests at the funerals of U.S. soldiers in order to draw attention to its message.

Albert Snyder, a Pennsylvania man whose son was killed in Iraq, sued Westboro Baptist, its pastor Fred W. Phelps, Sr., and members of his congregation after they picketed the funeral of Snyder's son, Matthew, holding up signs with slogans like "God hates you," "Thank God for dead soldiers," and "You're going to hell."

In October 2007, the jury awarded Snyder $2.9 million in compensatory damages, $6 million in punitive damages for invasion of privacy, and $2 million in punitive damages for emotional distress. For a more thorough analysis of the trial and verdict, see our earlier blog post on the case: Jury Awards $10.9 Million Against "God Hates Fags" Church.

On February 4, Judge Bennett cut the jury award down to $5 million. Applying both federal constitutional and state common law standards, he left the jury's compensatory damage award intact but reduced the total punitive damages to $2.1 million. This leaves Westboro Baptist Church and the other defendants on the hook for $5 million.

While there is a strong argument that intentional infliction of emotional distress and intrusion torts, the two claims the jury based liability upon, are unconstitutionally overbroad and vague when applied to speech in this context (see Eugene Volokh's excellent summary of these arguments here), the Court sidestepped this issue by concluding that the speech at issue in the case was not entitled to First Amendment protection because it was private speech about "private individuals" (a rather dubious distinction under First Amendment law).

We can expect to see the First Amendment argument addressed more fully when the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals hears the defendants' appeal of the verdict. According to the Baltimore Sun, the Fourth Circuit has scheduled a hearing for March 6, 2008.

You can read more about the case in the CMLP database: Snyder v. Phelps.


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