30 March 2010

Why I won't fight the Westboro Baptists. Yet.

Albert Snyder brought a lawsuit against Fred Phelps and his Westboro Baptist Church after they disrupted his son's funeral with their self-described "protests" (which are really just typical Christian homophobic rants, turned up to 11.)
Mr. Snyder won his 2006 federal jury trial and was awarded a $10.8 million judgment. Two years later, a federal judge reduced the judgment to $5 million on the grounds of appropriateness. Last year, on appeal, US Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals Judge Robert B. King wrote the opinion that reversed the jury. There was no dissenting opinion. Meanwhile Mr. Snyder's case was granted cert by the US Supreme Court. Just the other day, Judge King ordered Mr. Snyder to pay the legal fees of the Phelps' successful appeal.
Mr. Snyder says he doesn't have the money to pay for the legal fees or the SCOTUS case, so I went to his website to throw him a few bucks to fight the good fight, whereupon I read the following:
The family of Lance Corporal Matthew Snyder, US Marine Corps, has begun this civil lawsuit against Mr. Phelps and certain members of the so-called Westboro Baptist Church to bring an end to the reign of terror and abuse that they inflicted upon the grieving families of US service members killed in defense of our nation. Using innocent children to deliver their twisted message of hatred and fear, the defendants in this suit have sought to attack the memory of our departed heroes, to strip their loved ones of their dignity, and to use abuse and intimidation as a tool for preventing surviving family members from reaching closure over their loss.
Hm. So it's not wrong to terrorize, abuse, intimidate, and attack the dignity of any family's funeral — just military funerals — making that point not once, but twice.
You gotta be shitting me.
No wait...why am I surprised at all? America didn't gave a shit about the Westboro Baptists when they were directly attacking fags and dykes. It wasn't until they started bothering decent people's funerals that America became outraged.
When straight people started getting the Westboro Treatment it was news. Pundits and politicians began grandstanding, veterans formed a protective biker organization, states enacted anti-Westboro laws, the US Congress passed and President Bush signed the Respect for America's Fallen Heros Act (barring protests at military cemeteries), Mr. Snyder won his federal case, the Supreme Court decided to examine the Constitutional issues...
...whereupon we return to the dismal realization that inspired this post.
Despite the fact that gays are the ultimate target of the Westboro Baptists — and even central to the purpose of the church's underlying action — the LGBT community has, yet again, been legally thrown under the bus.
Let's face it, what could make Reverend Phelps happier? Win or lose, he always manages to screw the gays. Honestly, I'm in awe of this man's ability to beat the system. Sure, he's a total sociopath, but holy crap — he's a genius. He's so brilliant he actually manages to also get his legal opponents to fuck the gays over.
Wow.
Fred Phelps figured out a long time ago that federal law allows churches to be both sword and shield. With it's many religious exceptions, federal law (at least viewed superficially) provides a legal and tax-exempt way to make a living doing what he loves the most — attacking gays — along with the right to do so with legal impunity.
And upon these exemptions he built his church.
The law also ensures Phelps gets paid when he gets sued. Here's how: if one chooses to represent oneself in court (acting "pro se") one may not claim legal fees even if one is an attorney. Fred was finally disbarred, but many of the Phelps clan are licensed attorneys by the state of Kansas*. The Phelps Chartered Law Firm of Topeka is populated entirely by Westboro Baptists. When you sue them, they hire their own law firm, which entitles them to also collect any legal fees a court awards. Ta-da!
So yeah, three federal judges not only overturned Mr. Snyder's jury verdict (outrageous in itself), but they also ordered a Mr. Snyder to compensate the Phelps family $16,510 for their pro se expenses incurred in appealing their jury trial loss.
Told you Phelps was a genius.
Too bad our federal judges and legislators aren't as smart. But I'm not all that surprised. Nobody in my law school class could figure out that the Westboro Baptists have the same kind of First Amendment "protected speech" claim as my dipshit neighbor has when he sets his car's subwoofer to "stun." Which is to say it's not a First Amendment issue at all — it's a public nuisance issue. I have every right to attend a funeral without having to listen to Westboro Baptists for the same reason I have every right to sit in my living room without having to listen to my neighbor's car stereo.
If there is any legal distinction, it is this: my neighbor is a clueless, inconsiderate douchebag, but the Westboro Baptists are consciously, deliberately trying to piss me off. They admit it.
Yet somehow having this obnoxious motive works in their favor. In the legal mind, "intent to irritate gays" is protected political speech. And why not? Federal law and various state constitutions say that gays don't exist as a minority except in the context of enacting legal disabilities against them. Of course, if the subject of the WBC's "protest" signs read, "DEATH PENALTY FOR KIKES" or "PRAY FOR MORE DEAD NIGGERS," the two major parties would have a Texas Cage Match to decide who was more outraged. But since it's just death penalties for fags and praying for more dead homos...y'know, who cares?
The absurd legal reasoning arguing that Phelps' has a First Amendment right to disrupt funerals is akin to arguing that Scott Roeder has a First Amendment right to murder Dr. George Tiller. Sure, Roeder had the right to say that Dr. Tiller was a murderer, and to author an article or internet post about how abortion is morally or legally atrocious, or to lobby his elected officials to enact more restrictive abortion laws, or to draw a picture or wear a t-shirt depicting Tiller aborting a fetus. However, Roeder's anti-abortion beliefs (however deeply rooted in religion or politics) didn't provide him any right or license to violate the law or anybody else's rights. It merely explains Roeder's motive for doing so.
Motive is always relevant. It explains why the Westboro Baptists don't have a legitimate First Amendment argument. It also explains why I didn't end up contributing to Mr. Snyder's legal defense. If Mr. Snyder simply wants to ensure military funerals are safe from the Westboro Baptists, let military people pay.
When somebody wants to ensure all funerals are free of Westboro interference, I have a PayPal account.
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(*Why the Kansas Bar allows itself to be a party to making a mockery of Kansas law is a mystery, but also a whole 'nother blog post. To Washburn School of Law: Enough. Seriously. Whatever your financial circumstance, there's no excuse for continuously inflicting generations of legally trained Phelps upon society, so just knock it off already.)

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