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The Constitutional Right To Not Be Sued Too Harshly

I’ve never seen it in the Constitution either, but U.S. District Judge Richard Bennett seems to know all about it. For once, conservative s are right when they talk about “unelected judges legislating from the bench.”

Last October a jury ruled that the Westboro Baptist Church — that’s Fred Phelps and all of the other “church” members who look just like him — had to pay $10.9 million to Albert Snyder and his family. Snyder’s son Matthew was a Marine Lance Corporal who was killed in Iraq. Fred Phelps and his gang of mutants were picketing Matthew’s funeral. Their reason — as we all know by now — is that American military deaths in Iraq are God’s way of punishing America for tolerating homosexuals.

So Albert Snyder sued Fred Phelps’ “church” for emotional distress and invasion of privacy and was awarded $10.9 million. And now Judge Richard Bennett has reduced the award to $5 million. His reasoning was based on “the need to weigh any harm Snyder suffered against the financial resources of the church.”


Or maybe it’s up to Fred Phelps to worry about his own financial resources. He could protect them himself by not engaging in hateful acts which would logically result in a $10 million verdict. You know, that “individua l responsibili ty” that conservative s are always talking about.

People have lost their homes and businesses, and been forced into bankruptcy, by expensive lawsuits. Whether that’s right or not, it’s a fact. Since nobody else has any guarantee that they won’t be sued into bankruptcy, why should a hateful shitbag like Fred Phelps have his own personal safety net that nobody else is entitled to?

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15 Responses to “The Constitutional Right To Not Be Sued Too Harshly”

  1. Don’t you just hate a double standard?

  2. You can tell you have created God in your own image when it turns out that he or she hates all the same people you do. - Anne Lamott

  3. Appellate judges reduce awards all the time. Just as they reduce sentences. And yes, the Constitution does contain such a clause. It’s called the eighth amendment ban on cruel and unusual punishment. Sentence a juvenile to 6 months in juvie hall for shop-lifting  , fine. Sentence him to 50 years hard labor, it’s called cruel and unusual punishment. In this case, the judge ruled that the award was excessive. Since I believe that the original trial was a travesty against the Phelps’s first amendment rights in the first place, it should be appealed up to the Supreme Court and overturned.

    Relax. It’s not like the Church can come up with $5 million any more than it will come up with $10.

  4. Furthermore, it is simply not true that the Phelps’s have been granted a “safety net” that is not available to others. The same safety net is available to each and every person who is drawn before a court anywhere in the country: it’s called a fair and independent appellate judge.

  5. By the way, by arguing that the Phelpses were engaged in first amendment protected speech, I am, of course, not, by any means, agreeing with the content of their speech. I am merely arguing that they took care to obey the law, statutory as well as the case law, as it stood at the time regarding protesting at a public forum location (a public sidewalk) and at least the same distance that protesters at abortion clinics are required to remain away from the clinic. They were peacefully assembled and so far from intruding upon the funeral, the father was wholly unaware of the protest until well after the funeral service when he saw it on tv. I understand that people find the message repulsive and the occasion inappropriat e. I do too but I argue that the Constitution grants the Phelpses the right to peacefully assemble at a distance from a Church that sufficiently allows full access to the Church to promulgate the message that they promulgated. What has been called hate speech here, they consider true speech. The truth or falsity of the message is for the marketplace of ideas to hash out, not a court of law. Long before the eighth amendment came into play, calling for a reduction of the fine, the first amendment protected the Phelpses’ right to protest without fear of retaliation, either physical or legal.

  6. As for legislating from the bench, poppycock! The judge’s ruling hasn’t written or re-written any law. It did what judge’s rulings every day of every week of every year have done, since this nation’s constitution al founding (and before that, yet). It applied the law to the particular facts of the case before the judge.

  7. If you would like an example of legislating from the bench, I offer Roe v. Wade, which forced a rewriting of abortion law in nearly every state in the union in accord with it’s regime. Like Roe or hate it, neither is my point. My point is, THAT’s an example of legislating from the bench. This is just what District judges do every day. The ruling won’t change a singe aspect of a single law in a single jurisdiction in the country.

  8. I think the reason Phelps has a safety net not because he is a religious man but because he is a democrat.

  9. Lisa, your comment about this vile human being a Democrat made me do a search and your right. He even ran for office as a Dem.

    “Would it surprise you to know that the political affiliation of Fred Phelps of the Westboro Baptist Church is?

    “Phelps has run in various Kansas Democratic Party primaries five times, but has never won. These included races for governor in 1990, 1994, and 1998, receiving about 15% of the vote in 1998. In the 1992 Democratic Party primary for U.S. Senate, Phelps received 31% of the vote Phelps ran for mayor of Topeka in 1993 and 1997.”
    http://en.wi wiki/Fred_Ph el…”

    This tied in with the post recently showing more “born again” christians being Dems makes me look forward to the looming war between the religious left and the liberals for the heart and soul of the Democrat party.

  10. Ironic I know Man. Brings a whole new meaning to 2-faced.

  11. Craig (aka “me”): I’ve gotta admit you make some good points. But the fact remains, people do get sued into bankruptcy; and lots of other people are intimidated into silence by the threat of a lawsuit (SLAPP suits for example). I don’t think this is right, but if there’s one person in the world who deserves to be sued into oblivion, it’s Fred Phelps.

    The First Amendment guarantees free speech but it doesn’t guarantee that you won’t be retaliated against by somebody who’s offended by your free speech. I’m all for allowing Phelps to demonstrate at funerals, but he isn’t entitled to police protection. He can say anything he wants, but if he gets surrounded by an angry mob…

    Same goes for that Nazi group that marches through Skokie, IL every year (where a lot of Holocaust survivors live).

    If I decided to walk into a bar full of Hell’s Angels and yell out “only fairies ride motorcycles, ” would I be entitled to a police escort, or should I have to take the consequences  ?

    Rube: Good quote. Very apt.

    Lisa, Manapp: I didn’t know that Phelps was a Democrat but it’s not surprising. During the civil rights battles of the 1960s, some of the worst Southern rednecks were Democrats.

  12. Tom we’ve always said that about the democrats especially when the majority of them opposed the Civil Rights Movement and the Majority of Republicans supported it. Just ask Robert Byrd I believe his vote was a nay.
    Why do you think it bothers us when Republicans are the ones labeled racist and no one challenges it.
    There is nothing wrong with people getting off the welfare system nd becoming self suficient human beings as Guliani did in NYC . That is what gives people self esteem and not make them isolated. It actually is a good thing for them and society as a whole.

  13. Tom,

    Free speech purist that I am, I do not believe that the constitution protects anything at all like a right not to have one’s feelings hurt or to be offended. I know that that’s the direction that Europe and Canada are drifting. Mark Styne and MacClean’s magazine are being dragged through one provincial and the Canadian human rights commission inquest into whether what they’ve written might constitute a violation of Canadian Muslims’ human right to never have a bad word ever uttered or written against Islam, Allah, or the Prophet. If the commission should punish either of them, it will be the end of free speech in Canada, at least when it comes to discussion of the Islamic faith and Prophet, and the ushering in of an era that I would rather not live through here in America. I’m sorry but there’s no right to not be offended. Just the right to say and print most anything one wishes as long as it doesn’t amount to libel or defamation. What the Phelpses were saying was not that the slain soldier was gay, was a bad soldier, a bad American or, indeed anything at all about the soldier other than that he had died in a war that was God’s punishment for our nation’s increasing acceptance of homosexuals and homosexualit y. Agree or disagree with the message on whatever grounds you choose but the message is not a denigration at all of the soldier or the soldier’s family. It is a criticism of the policies of this country and government.

    And THIS is why the silencing of the Phelpses is so dangerous: next it might be your message that might offend someone, who might take you to court and sue you for ten million dollars. Not only is it dangerous, it’s un-American… anti-America n. This country was built by people escaping oppression on the basis of their beliefs and the first amendment written to protect EVERYONE’S beliefs and, above all, the iron-clad right to criticize the government’s policies.

    If the Phelpses can be sued to oblivion and their message effectively silenced, so can you and yours.

    Liberals, conservative s, libertarians  , those on the hard right and the hard left, if we wish to keep our rights of speech and protest, as abhorrent as the Phelpses and their message are, we had better work damn hard to make sure that this law suit is reversed in the Supreme Court and that our legislators enact protections against future law-suits of this sort.

    There’s nothing American about this law-suit and there’s nothing American about the America that will result if this law-suit is not overturned. In this, I am quite serious. This is not, in my opinion, an exaggeration . I fear for our rights to free speech. It is a liberty that those who root for this law-suit will only miss once it is gone.

  14. As for retaliation, you’re right but I would rather retain my right to speak freely and risk a lawless, violent retaliation  (which the machine of the state would then be brought to bear to punish), than to stand by while the machine of the state give legitimacy to the oppression of unpopular speech. We used to be a nation that believed in the saying (I may have this somewhat wrong), “I dissagree with what you say but will defend with my life your right to say it.” This suit indicates that we are becoming a nation that believes, “I disagree with what you say so I’m going to sue you unto the third and fourth generation.” If this is the future, just shoot me now.

  15. And actually, if the protesting group is likely to be violently retaliated against, I believe that they ARE entitled to police protection. It is the government’s job not only to protect the right of free speech, it is their responsibili ty to protect the speaker if violence is a foreseeable likelihood. They aren’t called peace officers for nothing. It is their job to keep the peace…and not at the expense of the speech rights of Americans.

    That opinion may be even less popular than my opinions above but I believe it just as firmly.

    Government may require protesters to register their intent to protest and to obtain permits for the same (and the government may not deny permission based solely on the content of the protest) but granting the permit to protest, they are responsible to keep peace at the protest if it seems likely to elicit violence. As for just walking into a biker bar, as you suggest, well, there’s no protection against an excess of stupidity. Anyone who would do as you suggest should arrange for his funeral ahead of time rather than burden his family with the details. ;-)

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