Outraged that the father of a dead Marine was ordered to pay some court costs incurred by a group he had sued for picketing his son's funeral, people from across the country have launched a grass-roots fundraising effort to help the grieving family.
"I was appalled," said Sally Giannini, a 72-year-old retired bookkeeper from Spokane, Wash., who had called The Baltimore Sun after seeing an article about the court decision against Albert Snyder. "I believe in free speech, but this goes too far."
Living on a fixed income, Giannini said she could send only $10 toward the $16,510.80 that the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ordered Snyder to pay to Fred Phelps, leader of the Westboro Baptist Church in Topeka, Kan., an anti-gay group that travels the country picketing military funerals. The group says military deaths are God's punishment for America's tolerance of homosexuality.
Snyder sued Westboro because its members waved signs saying "God hates fags" and "God hates the USA" at the 2006 funeral in Westminster of his son, Lance Cpl. Matthew Snyder, who had been killed in Iraq. A federal jury in Baltimore awarded Snyder $11 million in damages in 2007, saying Phelps' group intentionally inflicted emotional distress on the family. The award was later reduced to $5 million, and eventually overturned on appeal.
As news of the order to pay some of the court costs spread through the news media and online, strangers were moved to send money and set up funds to support Snyder's court battle. Tuesday night, commentator Bill O'Reilly of Fox News Channel offered to pay the court costs owed by Snyder, according to WBAL Radio.
Mark C. Seavey, new-media director for the American Legion, also posted a message Tuesday on his Legion-affiliated blog, The Burn Pit, urging readers to donate to the Albert Snyder Fund. The American Legion's message was picked up by conservative political blogger Michelle Malkin, who called the Westboro protesters "evil miscreants" and urged readers to donate.
"Regardless of how you feel about the merits of the Snyders' suit, the Snyders deserve to know that Americans are forever grateful for their son's heroism and for the family's sacrifice. We shouldn't stand by and watch them bankrupted," Malkin wrote.
Money from donations will go toward covering the money owed to Phelps, and beyond that, toward preparing further appeals, Seavey said.
"As soon as we heard this, we just knew that it was going to go through the roof, and people were going to be upset. We seized on it," Seavey said. "On an issue like this that cuts across political lines, it's relatively easy, and it's the kind of fight we want to wade into because it's not right or left, it's right or wrong. We're going to do the best we can to make sure that Mr. Snyder doesn't have to deal with this. We're going to make sure he doesn't have to pay a red cent."
In a phone interview Tuesday, Snyder said he was "exhausted" by the long legal ordeal but heartened by the outpouring of support. He said he has received about 3,000 e-mail messages from people across the country who planned to contribute.
"It kind of restores your faith in mankind after dealing with this wacko church," Snyder said. "Win or lose, I'll know that I did everything I could for Matt, and for all the soldiers and Marines who are still coming home dying."
From Web sites to Twitter pages, people were galled that the grieving father of a fallen Marine would have to pay a group that uses such inflammatory tactics. A Facebook group called "I support Al Snyder in His fight against Westboro Baptist Church" had drawn nearly 12,000 members by the end of the day Tuesday.
In September, the 4th Circuit Court threw out the Baltimore jury's award to Snyder on free-speech grounds. A month later, Westboro filed a motion to recoup court costs from both the original suit and the appeal, for a total of $96,740.21. Friday's judgment covers only some costs from the appeal.
The U.S. Supreme Court agreed this month to hear a new appeal of the case, which experts say is being closely watched by 1st Amendment advocates. If the Supreme Court sides with Snyder, he won't have to pay Westboro.
"The most alarming part is that [the 4th Circuit] sat on it for months, and only ruled on it after the Supreme Court agreed to hear it," said Sean E. Summers, Snyder's York, Pa.-based lawyer. "The other troubling fact was that we were trying to raise about $20,000 to file a Supreme Court brief. Now we have [to raise] another $16,500. ... There are definitely extenuating circumstances, given that Mr. Snyder doesn't have the resources to pay."
Snyder, who lives in York, does in-house sales for a small electronics firm and, according to court filings, earns $43,000 a year.
Gene Policinski, executive director of the First Amendment Center in Nashville, Tenn., predicted that the Supreme Court will not address issues of where protesters are permitted to demonstrate, as it has in the past in the case of abortion protesters. Instead, he said, the case is important because "it has the potential to define whether we're going to create a new exemption to freedom of speech that is emotionally distressing."
"You can imagine that Martin Luther King and others inflicted emotional distress on people, if they were committed to segregation," he said. "I shudder to think if those people were armed with the weapon of suing him because the issue itself was repugnant to them."
For some supporters, the issue is not so much the right to free speech as the right to a peaceful burial of fallen troops.
Alice M. Johnson, 56, of Lynbrook, N.Y., said she donated $50 to Snyder's cause. Since 2008, Johnson has been a member of the Patriot Guard Riders, a group that sends supporters to troops' funerals to shield their families from protesters.
"I agree that people have the right to free speech," she said, "but that should not be allowed ... where people are laying their children to rest who died for their country."