Phelps, You Got Some 'Splainin' To Do!

Nope, Michael Phelps isn't getting sued for smoking more reefer; this is a different Phelps.  (Btdubs, if you haven't seen Seth Meyer on SNL's Really?!? about Michael Phelps, take a blog pause and go watch it ASAP). This is Fred Phelps, one of the most close-minded, fanatical idiots our side of Kim Jong Il, whose cruel, belligerent protests are challenging free speech rights to their very core.

Fred Phelps is the leader of the Westboro Baptist Church, a Topeka-based group of crazy, interrelated fundamentalists who remind me of the Compound in HBO's Big Love.  Their whole mission is to carry around fluorescent picket signs and let you know God hates you.  I was going to link their website, but I'd rather provide the URL so you can go there on your own:  (That's not a joke. It's too laughable to be a joke.)

Westboro became a national symbol of hatred when they protested Matthew Sheppard's funeral (a gay high schooler beaten to death in Wyoming whose murder was the basis for the play The Laramie Project). But the "Church" isn't just another homophobic Christian group: they broke out of that stereotype when they started protesting the funerals of American soldiers. 

Yes, that's right.  Fred Phelps believes that God is killing soldiers in Iraq to punish America for abandoning its morals.  In 2006, Westboro picketed the funeral of Lance Corporal Matthew A. Snyder, a 20 year old marine killed in Iraq.  Snyder's family sued Phelps for defamation, invasion of privacy (intrusion upon seclusion), and intentional infliction of emotional distress. 

A Maryland District Court found Phelps guilty of the latter two torts and awarded millions of dollars in damages.  But, on appeal to the Fourth Circuit, the award was overturned on the grounds that Phelps' speech was constitutionally protected.  "Adding insult to injury," the Fourth Circuit ordered the Synder family to pay $16,000 for Westboro's court costs.  (In a rare moment of NOT being a douchenozzle, Bill O'Reilly offered to pay the entire amount.  And I bet Fred Phelps made "Pinhead" of the day.)

This case is poised to be interesting for a number of reasons:

First, Westboro is a group without a political backing.  Say what you want about "Separation of Powers," but the Supreme Court is particularly politicized this term (and maybe ever since Bush v. Gore).  Sotomayor's confirmation hearings and a number of recent cases (Citizens United, the McDonald Second Amendment case) illustrate the prevalence of politics in legal decision-making.  But Westboro stands alone, marooned on the island of Crazyville.  The religious right hates them because they protest the deaths of soldiers; the liberal left hates them because they protest gayJewbortions.  I hate them because they dress soooo badly.

Second, despite being the organizational equivalent of a mustache-twirling Disney villain, Westboro is shielding itself behind the most deep-seated, beloved basic right of American law: the freedom of speech.   Fred Phelps is so hateable that it's actually hard to muster language to describe him (I had to thesaurus "hate," "crazy," and "stupid" like 14 times just to write this blog post and yes, I just used "thesaurus" as a verb).  So, the case will depend on the ability of Phelps' lawyer to frame the issue not in defense of these obtuse extremist morons, but in defense of America's favorite civil right: speech.

Finally, SCOTUS has granted cert on some really important constitutional law issues.  Merging of IIED and intrustion torts with First Amendment protections poses complex legal questions (way more interesting than merging IIED with cat-food-related deaths, am I right, UGA Law 2010 grads?).  The Court has to determine if Hustler Magazine, Inc. v. Falwell, which held that public figures can't claim IIED damages, applies to private people in private matters.  And, even if only implicitly, the Court will have to pick their favorite First Amendment right: is free speech more important than freedom of religion or peaceful assembly?

The case will probably not be argued until October, but I wanted to get you guys fired up about it.  And give you plenty of time to make your own signs:
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