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Federal judge upholds verdict, reduces award in military funeral protesters case

[JURIST] A federal judge on Monday upheld a jury verdict [opinion, PDF] finding Fred Phelps and the Westboro Baptist Church [WARNING: readers may find some material offensive; BBC report] guilty of intentional infliction of emotional distress and invasion of privacy for staging a protest at the funeral of Lance Cpl. Matthew A. Snyder [case website]. Judge Richard Bennett of the US District Court for the District of Maryland rejected Westboro's argument that their activities enjoy absolute protection under the First Amendment:

This Court has held and continues to hold that the First Amendment does not afford absolute protection to individuals committing acts directed at other private individuals. The Supreme Court of the United States has specifically held that First Amendment protection of particular types of speech must be balanced against a state's interest in protecting its residents from wrongful injury...Maryland particularly recognizes a cause of action protecting its residents from intentional infliction of emotional distress arising from outrageous conduct. Maryland also recognizes a cause of action for invasion of privacy by intrusion upon seclusion when there is an unwarranted invasion of a person’s privacy which would be highly offensive to a reasonable person.
Bennett, however, reduced the jury award [JURIST report] from $11 million down to $5 million, as the church does not have the financial ability to pay $11 million in damages.

Westboro and its leader, Rev. Fred Phelps, have staged several protests at military funerals in recent years. In 2006, President Bush signed into law [JURIST report] the Respect for America's Fallen Heroes Act [HR 5037 summary; PDF text], prohibiting any demonstration within 300 feet of the entrance of a national cemetery and within 150 feet of an entrance into the cemetery for one hour before and after a military funeral. The Baltimore Examiner has local coverage.

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