Church ordered to pay $10.9 million for funeral protest

CNN Story
"They've picketed the funerals of dozens of troops killed in Iraq and Afghanistan, claiming that God is punishing the United States because of its tolerance for homosexuality."

"All it was, was a protestation by the government of the United States against the word of God. They don't want me preaching that God is punishing the country by killing their servicemen."
Fred Phelps, church founder.

Some people can convince themselves of some really outrageous things.
But hey, what's the harm?

From the argument analysis point of view, Phelps argument is a classic strawman and /or red herring. It misrepresents the opposition and introduces an argument irrelevant to the issue.

13 comments:

Gribble The Munchkin said...

Its rare that i encounter a human being that i feel completely justified in despising. But Fred Phelps and his little group of lunatics fit nicely.

I'm glad they finally got their arses handed to them by the judge. Hopefully their appeal will die quickly and they lose their church, house and shirts off their backs for what they've done.

These people manage to give the Falwells and Robertsons of the world a bad name, hard though that may seem.


I've always marvelled at the restraint of the families the Phelps have violated with their protests. I know i'd find it very hard not to smack him upside his head.

WoundedEgo said...

Here are some implications of these protests:

* if some people "commit" homosexuality in the US, God "judges" the nation - is this a case of Blind justice? Or bad aim?

* perhaps the point in punishing the nation rather than the perp is that tolerance is a greater sin than sin itself?

* the US soldiers were fighting the Taliban and terrorists. **Fighting against** Islamic terrorism in no way offsets **tolerating** homosexuality

* these soldiers laid down their lives for their friends - formerly the greatest virtue. Now the greatest is not tolerating homosexuality

So these family values seem to say that divine jurisprudence is a bit obsessed. Is God a single issue voter/judge?

Bill Ross
http://bibleshockers.blogspot.com

Master Jedi Dan said...

Finally...it's about time these nutcases got nailed with a swift blow. This news just made my day 10 times better.

Joe E. Holman said...

Gang, I so hate to say it but I have to--from what I've read of this story, the church violated no laws here. This verdict was dead wrong.

These hateful, peanut-headed bigots have the right to protest at public funerals. This decision is going to be kicked, as it should be. Just watch.

We can't praise the silencing of fools - even though it brings us great pleasure - when the principle of free speech has been in any way tampered with.

Someone slap me upside the head on this one, but until I know better, I have to oppose this all the way.

(JH)

zilch said...

There's a great word in German: "jain", meaning "yes-no" (ja+nein). I'm going to have to plant my feet firmly on the slippery slope of yes-no here and say: hmmm- jain.

On the one hand: Phelps is scum, and protesting at a private funeral is beyond the pale. On the other: free speech is very important. But where do you draw the line?

Shouting "fire" in a crowded theater with no fire is pretty obviously an abuse of free speech. My saying that Phelps is scum, here on an open internet forum, and not spit in his face at dinner with his family, is equally pretty obviously a right worth defending. But there's lots of stuff in between, and I'm unwilling to say that this case is obviously on one side of that fuzzy line or the other.

That's the difficult thing about moral systems, regardless of whether they're religious or not: they are not black and white, and sometimes hard decisions must be made.

Shygetz said...

Gang, I so hate to say it but I have to--from what I've read of this story, the church violated no laws here. This verdict was dead wrong.

No statute was violated, but common law was. This was a tort action, not a criminal action, so a violation of criminal statutes was not necessary. It was only necessary to show that they unjustly caused damages to the injured party, in this case through malicious invasion of privacy and through malicious infliction of emotional distress.

If I published your SS number to get back at your family, it would not be illegal. However, you could sue me for invasion of privacy for maliciously publicizing private information that causes you offense (in this case, material harm through ID theft).

Lee Randolph said...

Hi all,
I was going to talk about grounds, when one persons rights violate another but shygetz covered it. I posted the article as a data point to support the claim that some people will use religion, their ideals and their presumption of righteousness, to willfully inflict harm on others. All this talk about universal morality and the indwelling and guidance of the spirit is undermined by these CHRISTIANS.

They are carrying on a long tradition of civil rights violations using the bible and their presumed righteousness to justify them. Could it be......Machiavelli?

Joe E. Holman said...

Yes, you all make good points, but this is not quite the same as yelling fire in a movie theatre. It seems to me that all this comes down to is Phelps not getting to preach because the families don't want to hear what he has to say.

Well, make more laws concerning protesting, evangelizing, and proselytizing at funerals. That way, there's a statute that stops them.

If we go by "spirit" as opposed to "letter of the law," what's to stop them from coming for atheists next? This reminds me of the Fairness Doctrine that certain liberal political activitists wanted to get passed to attack "hurrassment" from talk show hosts. It's censorship, just under another name. It was rightly opposed, even though the rightwing sickens me mostly.

Phelps and gang are deviants, but I can't stut them up anymore than I can 911 Conspiracy theorists. It's the principle of the thing, but I would rally to change state and city laws so that it is illegal to protest in certain spots.

It's a damn fine line, folks!

(JH)

Andrew said...

But the US is committing war crimes.

And the volunteer soldiers participate.

Shygetz said...

No, no, no, Joe. No one is saying Phelps cannot picket, and no one is saying that Phelps cannot say the vile stuff he says.

But he cannot violate the established expectations of privacy at a family funeral to do so (which he clearly did), and he cannot perform outrageous behavior with the malicious intent to harm someone at a moment when he knows that person to be vulnerable. Intentional infliction of emotional distress is a tort action with a considerable history in civil rights, as lee pointed out, and it has been kept in check in the US by a very high legal standard for outrageous conduct. Phelps' group clearly crossed the line by protesting a private individual at his funeral with outrageous epithets.

If we go by "spirit" as opposed to "letter of the law," what's to stop them from coming for atheists next?

If we go to a believer's funeral and interrupt the pastor by shouting that the deceased is not in Heaven, but rather rotting in the grave and the family are a bunch of deluded weak-willed wish-thinkers, nothing. Solution: don't do that. If you have a problem with common law, you've got a big problem--it's not going anywhere.

This reminds me of the Fairness Doctrine that certain liberal political activitists wanted to get passed to attack "hurrassment" from talk show hosts. It's censorship, just under another name.

The difference between IIED and Fairness Doctrine is that IIED only works against outrageous acts against private individuals with malicious intent at particularly vulnerable moments. If a liberal activist goes on a talk show, (s)he is no longer a private individual and not at a particularly vulnerable moment. See Hustler v. Falwell.

Phelps and gang are deviants, but I can't stut them up anymore than I can 911 Conspiracy theorists.

If the 9/11 "truthers" start picketing funerals with outrageous claims, you can.

It's the principle of the thing, but I would rally to change state and city laws so that it is illegal to protest in certain spots.

I would find that to be a greater infraction on free speech. Say a black child was gunned down by a racist white cop. The law would make it where supporters of the black family could not picket against police racism at the funeral, regardless of the family's wishes. By keeping it tort law, we can keep criminal enforcement out of it and adjucate difficulties between private parties on a case-by-case basis, which is cheaper and more flexible.

Joe E. Holman said...

Shygetz said...

No, no, no, Joe. No one is saying Phelps cannot picket, and no one is saying that Phelps cannot say the vile stuff he says.

But he cannot violate the established expectations of privacy at a family funeral to do so (which he clearly did), and he cannot perform outrageous behavior with the malicious intent to harm someone at a moment when he knows that person to be vulnerable.

My reply...

Okay, if the family specified it as a private event, I agree. No point in even arguing it. I understood it to be a public event.

But malicious intent aspect of it is not applicable; The Phelps gang believed they were there trying to save this man and the nation's soul. How would anyone possibly prove malicious intent? And "vulnerable moment"? All missionaries captilize on emotional weaknesses.


Shygetz said...

Intentional infliction of emotional distress is a tort action with a considerable history in civil rights, as lee pointed out, and it has been kept in check in the US by a very high legal standard for outrageous conduct. Phelps' group clearly crossed the line by protesting a private individual at his funeral with outrageous epithets.

My reply...

Accepted.

Shygetz said...

If we go to a believer's funeral and interrupt the pastor by shouting that the deceased is not in Heaven, but rather rotting in the grave and the family are a bunch of deluded weak-willed wish-thinkers, nothing. Solution: don't do that. If you have a problem with common law, you've got a big problem--it's not going anywhere.

My reply...

Where is the line drawn? When is someone "public" and when not?

Shygetz said...

The difference between IIED and Fairness Doctrine is that IIED only works against outrageous acts against private individuals with malicious intent at particularly vulnerable moments. If a liberal activist goes on a talk show, (s)he is no longer a private individual and not at a particularly vulnerable moment. See Hustler v. Falwell.

My reply...

"Private individual" meaning someone in private at a given time? Accepted, but the "particularly vulnerable moment" part still bothers me though.

Shygetz said...

If the 9/11 "truthers" start picketing funerals with outrageous claims, you can.

My reply...

Or any specifiedly private event, right?

Shygetz said...

I would find that to be a greater infraction on free speech. Say a black child was gunned down by a racist white cop. The law would make it where supporters of the black family could not picket against police racism at the funeral, regardless of the family's wishes. By keeping it tort law, we can keep criminal enforcement out of it and adjucate difficulties between private parties on a case-by-case basis, which is cheaper and more flexible.

My reply...

How would it seeing as there are restrictions on the places literature can be passed out, parking places, and times for buying alcohol? Wouldn't it just be another regulation?

You almost have me convinced though--and believe me, there are few other issues I am so happy to be proved wrong on as this one!

(JH)

Lee Randolph said...

Hi Joe,
I am not lawyer, but I from what I think I know ;-) funerals would operate under a presumption of privacy by its nature. I presume it would have to be explicitly stated to be a public funeral. In the case the family claimed it was open to the public, then the phelps gang may have grounds for a defense.

Shygetz said...

Where is the line drawn? When is someone "public" and when not?..."Private individual" meaning someone in private at a given time?

I will quote the surprisingly accurate Wiki:

"A fairly high threshold of public activity is necessary to elevate a person to public figure status. Typically, they must either be:

a public figure pervasively involved in public affairs, or
a limited purpose public figure, meaning those who have 'thrust themselves to the forefront of particular public controversies in order to influence the resolution of the issues involved.'"

Public figure status is used to increase the amount of speech that is allowed, so that public figures may be satirized and insulted with much more impunity than a private individual. The logic is that speech regarding a person with considerable public prominence is more consequential, and therefore should be granted more leeway vs. speech that harms an inconsequential individual.

But malicious intent aspect of it is not applicable; The Phelps gang believed they were there trying to save this man and the nation's soul.

They did not believe they were saving the man's soul; they said he was already in Hell. They also usually hold signs claiming the deceased to be a "fag". Additionally, I was in error when I said that the intent must be malicious. Apparently, "A reckless disregard for the likelihood of causing emotional distress is sufficient." (Wiki) I think we can agree that Westboro Baptist had a reckless disregard at the minimum.

Accepted, but the "particularly vulnerable moment" part still bothers me though.

The "vulnerable moment" criteria is part of the test for determining if the action was sufficiently outrageous. It is necessary, in my view, in order to allow Phelps (and others) to make outrageous statements without liability simply by choosing when to do so. It is similar to incitement of a riot; you can say something that is perfectly legal, but be prosecuted because you said it at a particularly inflammatory place and time. You can shout "Fire!" but not in a theater when it is crowded.

Or any specifiedly private event, right?

They cannot invade the privacy of the event by picketing it. You can picket a private event, but only in an area where there is no expectation of privacy (e.g. I could picket a private Amoco board meeting in the street, not in the board room).

How would it seeing as there are restrictions on the places literature can be passed out, parking places, and times for buying alcohol? Wouldn't it just be another regulation?

I am unaware as to the restrictions on passing out literature, outside of private property rights (e.g. no solicitation posts in private residences, no solicitation policies in private businesses, etc.) Parking is not an issue; either it is a private property right, or it is a prevailing public interest for the regulation of public property (same idea that prevents you from burning down a ranger station; just because it is public doesn't mean it's YOURS). Purchasing alcohol is a regulation of commerce, which is not at all prohibited by the Constitution (indeed, in some cases is specifically allowed).

Don't get me wrong; I'm a pretty strong social libertarian (small "l"). But unless you want to go back to the days of deulling, we have to have civil processes for enforcing a minimum social decorum. I would rather do this through civil common law which allows flexibility and greater civillian control than criminal statute, which brings the inflexibility of the state.