By Randy Appleton, HSCLA Attorney
Imagine that you are the parent of a young patriotic man who desires to serve in the United States
Military and who ends up traveling to Iraq. Months later your son is killed in Iraq and you have
the unthinkable task of attending the funeral of your own child. Last, add to the unthinkable funeral that dozens of protesters suddenly show up at the cemetery carrying signs such as “God hates you!” and “God is your enemy!” and other signs which suggest that war in Iraq is punishment on the United States for tolerating homosexuality. A sci-fi movie? No.
In fact, this is exactly what happened at a funeral of Marine Lance Corporal Matthew Snider, who was killed in Iraq, buried in York, Pennsylvania, and picketed by devout members of the Westboro Baptist Church, a fundamentalist Kansas church that has picketed military funerals out of a belief that society is being punished with the war in Iraq because of tolerance of homosexuality.
The family, through attorney Craig Trebilcock, convinced a Maryland jury to award a total of $11 million in damages in favor of the family. The award broke down as $2.9 million in compensatory damages, and then in a second verdict considering punitive damages, the jury awarded $6 million more for invasion of privacy and $2 million for emotional distress. The Snider’s attorney was quoted as saying “that says don’t do this in Maryland again. Do not bring your circus of hate to Maryland again.” The church members routinely picket military personnel killed in Iraq and Afghanistan, and they carry signs as above mentioned and others that say “Thank God for dead soldiers.”
While one might believe that everyone has a first amendment right to protest, the U.S. Supreme Court has long held that restrictions on free speech that are reasonably tailored, are constitutional. For example, protesters that want to protest outside of the White House must obtain permits and meet other requirements and similar restrictions are placed on protests around funeral sites, in various states. Actually, Congress has also passed a law prohibiting such protests at federal cemeteries. The main theory of the lawsuit was invasion of privacy and intent to inflict emotional distress, and the verdict was rendered by a federal jury. According to published reports this was the first such lawsuit around the country brought on behalf of a military family relating to such protest.