RICHMOND, Va. (AP)—A federal appeals court on Thursday tossed out a $5 million verdict against protesters who carried signs with inflammatory messages like "Thank God for dead soldiers" outside the Maryland funeral of a U.S. Marine killed in Iraq.
A three-judge panel of the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said the signs contained "imaginative and hyperbolic rhetoric" protected by the First Amendment. Such messages are intended to spark debate and cannot be reasonably read as factual assertions about an individual, the court said.
A jury in Baltimore had awarded Albert Snyder damages for emotional distress and invasion of privacy. The 2006 funeral of Snyder's son, Marine Lance Cpl. Matthew Snyder in Westminster, Md., was among many military funerals that have been picketed by members of the fundamentalist Westboro Baptist Church in Kansas.
Albert Snyder's attorney, Sean E. Summers, said he and his client were disappointed.
"The most troubling fact is it leaves these grieving families helpless," Summers said. "If you can't use the civil process, you have no recourse."
He said he will appeal the ruling to either the full appeals court or to the U.S. Supreme Court.
"We feel we owe that to Mr. Snyder and other families who have been harassed, humiliated and abused," Summers said.
Shirley Phelps-Roper, whose father is Westboro pastor Fred Phelps, said she was pleased by the ruling.
"They had no case but they were hoping the appellate court would not do their duty to follow the rule of law and the appellate court would not do that," said Phelps-Roper, who was among those named in the lawsuit.
"They didn't change God and they didn't stop us," she said. "What they managed to do was give us a huge door, a global door of utterance. Our doctrine is all over the world because of what they did."
Members of the Topeka, Kan.-based church have used protests at military funerals to spread their belief that U.S. deaths in the Iraq war are punishment for the nation's tolerance of homosexuality. One of the signs at Snyder's funeral combined the U.S. Marine Corps motto with a slur against gay men.
Other signs included "America is Doomed," "God Hates the USA/Thank God for 9/11," "Priests Rape Boys" and "Thank God for IEDs," a reference to the roadside bombs that have killed many U.S. troops in Iraq and Afghanistan.
"As a threshold matter, as utterly distasteful as these signs are, they involve matters of public concern, including the issue of homosexuals in the military, the sex-abuse scandal within the Catholic Church, and the political and moral conduct of the United States and its citizens," Judge Robert King wrote in the appeals court's opinion.
"Additionally, no reasonable reader could interpret any of these signs as asserting actual and objectively verifiable facts about Snyder or his son," he wrote.
The court also said a written piece about Snyder's funeral on the Westboro Web site was protected by the First Amendment. Unlike the signs, the Web site piece specifically named the Snyders. Even so, the court said, the missive was "primarily concerned with the Defendants' strongly held views on matters of public concern."