Marc Lamont Hill comes on “The Factor” all too frequently to discuss just about any topic – virtually all of which he knows nothing about. One week Bill O’Reilly has him on the show to talk about national security issues. Another week Hill opines on health care. This week Hill has given us a discourse on free speech rights under the First Amendment.
The occasion of Hill’s defense of the First Amendment was a discussion of the recent decision by a federal appeals court to overturn a jury verdict that the father of a dead marine, Al Snyder, won in a $5 million civil lawsuit against the virulent anti-gay Westboro Baptist Church. Members of this church were protesting with provactive signs such as “Thank God for dead soldiers” outside of the funeral of the Snyder son killed in battle. The jury found that the protest went too far, invading the Snyder family’s privacy and intentionally causing them severe emotional distress.
Hill was joined by Fox legal expert Megyn Kelly in saying that the federal court of appeals did the right thing in reversing the jury’s verdict. They are wrong.
To his credit, O’Reilly said that the court’s decision was outrageous – particularly when it added insult to injury by ordering the Snyder family to pay court costs to the church’s leader, Rev. Fred Phelps. O’Reilly has offered to pay these costs for the family himself.
Led by Phelps, members of the Westboro Baptist Church target homosexuals and others with hateful rhetoric. They believe that God is punishing America through the deaths of its soldiers because America tolerates gays. Hence the protests at the funerals of our fallen soldiers. It doesn’t get much lower than that.
Yet as long as the Westboro Baptist Church members do not interfere with the rights of others, the First Amendment does protect their right to spew their hate speech in public. The church members cannot be prosecuted for their rhetoric alone, only if it incites violence or is followed by crimes such as trespass or assault.
But free speech is not an absolute right. While speech may be freely exercised, it can have legal consequences under certain circumstances. A person who believes he or she has been defamed can sue the alleged defamer for damages. Similarly, the Snyders do have a right to seek redress in civil court following the funeral and the protests, to the extent they can prove that the church members harrassed the family with the intent to cause them emotional distress during their son’s funeral. That is precisely what they did, and the jury found in their favor.
As private citizens the Snyders also have their own First Amendment right to freely exercise their religious beliefs without undue interference. Being confronted with signs such as “Thank God for dead soldiers” during their son’s funeral would seem to cross that line.
Under these circumstances, the appeals court should have let the jury verdict stand since, as triers of fact, the members of the jury have the responsibility to determine whether the Westboro Baptist Church’s actions amounted to harassment that caused the alleged harm to the Snyder family. And certainly the Court should not have further punished the Snyders by ordering them to pay the church leader’s court costs. Judges have discretion when it comes to awarding costs to the other party and here the appeals court judges abused their discretion.
The Supreme Court has agreed to consider whether the church protesters’ message is protected absolutely by the First Amendment or must be balanced against the rights of the family mourners. Lets hope that they use some common sense.