On Wednesday, a federal jury in Maryland handed down a $10.9 million verdict against the Westboro Baptist Church, a fundamentalist Christian church in Kansas that publishes a website at www.godhatesfags.com, on which it disseminates its rabidly anti-homosexual views. Among other things, the church advocates the view that God kills U.S. soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan as punishment for America's tolerance of homosexuality and for the presence of gays in the U.S. military. 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."
Around the time of the funeral, the church also posted an essay on its website entitled "The Burden of Marine Lance Cpl. Matthew A. Snyder." In the essay, statements indicated that Snyder and his wife “raised [Matthew] for the devil,” “RIPPED that body apart and taught Matthew to defy his Creator, to divorce, and to commit adultery,” “taught him how to support the largest pedophile machine in the history of the entire world, the Roman Catholic monstrosity,” and “taught Matthew to be an idolator.”
Snyder sued Westboro Baptish, Phelps, and members of the congregation in federal court in Maryland in September 2006. The complaint included claims for defamation, two counts of invasion of privacy ((1) intrusion on seclusion and (2) publicity given to private life), and intentional infliction of emotional distress. Recently, the court dismissed the defamation claim and the invasion of privacy claim based on publication of private facts, holding that the statements at issue were protected religious expression, not statements of fact.
Starting on October 22, the case proceeded to trial on the intrusion and intentional infliction of emotional distress claims. Under Maryland law, one commits the tort of intrusion by "intentionally intrud[ing], physically or otherwise, upon the solitude or seclusion of another or his private affairs or concerns, . . . if the intrusion would be highly offensive to a reasonable person." Snyder v. Phelps, No. RDB-06-1389, slip op. at 19 (D. Md. Oct. 30, 2006). The jury evidently found that the Westboro protesters intruded upon the Snyder family's reasonable expectation of privacy in conducting the funeral. This is a surprising conclusion given that, according to a Baltimore Sun article on the trial, the protest took place 1000 feet outside the church where the funeral took place, and Snyder testified that he did not see the content of the protesters' signs as he entered or left the church.
The Baltimore Sun article linked to above has the best press coverage I've seen on the trial. Daniel J. Solove published an interesting post on Concurring Opinions that takes a theoretical approach to questions raised by the intrusion claim. Our entry in the Legal Threats Database has detailed information about the lawsuit, including copies of court documents.