A federal jury in Maryland has handed down an $11 million judgement against Fred Phelps and his rabid band of haters, after the father of one of the soldiers at whose funeral the Phelpsoi protested filed suit against them. The jury awarded $2.9 million in compensatory damages, $6 million in punitive damages, and an additional $2 million for emotional distress. The haters, of course, are planning to appeal--and they do have some grounds, it grieves me to have to say.
Before I go any further, let me be 100% crystal clear about a couple of things. First, I'm not a lawyer and I don't even play one on TV. I'm just an educated layman who's spent some time reading up on First Amendment issues and caselaw, who also happens to have a library degree and know a little something about research and the interpretation of texts.
Second, I am of the firm conviction that, in the unlikely event that God actually hates anything or anyone, it is far more likely to be Fred Phelps and his sick, twisted notions about God than it is anything else. Chances are pretty good, from where I sit, that if Fred Phelps is sure God's agin' it, God is probably for it. And while I'm doing my level best to be a man of peace, for Fred Phelps and his band of boobs it wouldn't take much to have me singing an Amen to the prayer famously expressed by Capt. Edmund Blackadder at the end of Episode 2 of Blackadder Goes Forth:
Henceforth, I shall nightly pray to the God who killed Cain and squashed Samson that He comes out of retirement and gets back into practice on the [lot of them].
Of course, the Phelpsoi are likely to appeal on First Amendment grounds. The daughter, who has become something of a spokeswoman over the last few years, confidently predicted that it would take mere minutes to get this verdict overturned on appeal. (She, along with most of the rest of the family, is a lawyer--probably because when they're not out spewing hatred on the highways and byways of America, they're in court, either trying to fend off lawsuits like the one that resulted in this judgement, or else filing nuisance suits and trying to collect judgements themselves--probably the major source of income for this not-so-merry band of buffoons who, if they had more than a few functioning brain cells between the lot of them, would realize that they're doing their alleged cause far more harm than good by carrying on in their usual fashion at other people's funerals.
Of course, the First Amendment gives them a perfect right to behave like dickheads. I'm frankly more dubious about their claim that their hatred constitutes a protected exercise of their religious beliefs, since it would be incredibly difficult to make the case that they aren't way out in right field as far as the denomination to which they claim to belong is concerned.
However, the First Amendment isn't an absolute. The government is allowed to place limitations of time, place, and manner on the expression of even protected speech--and I would think that a funeral should easily fall into the category of an event where such protections were warranted. Of course, in a perfect world (or if the Phelpsoi were actually Christians), this would be a moot point as no one in his or her right mind would ever dream of intruding upon a family's private grief for something so callous as holding up a sign claiming that God hates soldiers, or that the dearly departed was then and there burning in hell for this or that imaginary crime.
It is, I must admit, tempting to suggest that any kind of self-evidently loony-tunes crap like what Phelps and his klan practice should automatically be exempted from First Amendment protection. But upon more sober reflection, that would put us at the top of a hazardous mountain, with slippery slopes stretching away in every conceivable direction. Do we really want to put a court in the position of deciding, for example, what is and what is not authentic religious faith or orthodox doctrine? (I don't think so.) Nor do I think it would be such a good idea to enshrine into the law the principle that abhorrent speech should automatically receive less protection than speech which ruffles no feathers--because at some point, we may all of us need to be able to use just that kind of abhorrent speech for some very good reason. Obviously we can't simply ban speech that we disagree with, but then turn right around and claim to be exempt from that ruling when it's our turn to be saying something that other folks disagree with.
And there's the rub with this verdict. On the one hand, I would dearly love to see this grieving father whose farewell to his fallen son the Phelps klan sullied with their odious presence strip them of every asset they now have, and garnish their future earnings for the rest of their miserable lives--especially if it meant that the Phelpsoi would no longer be able to roam the country at will, spreading their poison wherever they go. But on the other hand, I have to be at least a little concerned at the kind of precedent it sets.