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Worst American Birthdays, vol. 29

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Fred “Gramps” Phelps, patriarch of “The Most Hated Family in America,” turns 78 today. Best known for his work with Topeka’s Westboro Baptist Church — a clown ministry consisting almost entirely of his extended family — Phelps enjoys a parasitical relationship to the ills of the world. Picketing various funerals and endorsing mass catastrophe on behalf of God, Phelps enforces his Lord’s gay-unfriendly agenda with a devotional style best described as canine. By Phelps’ account, the 9-11 attacks, the Virginia Tech shootings, IED casualities, and the Minneapolis bridge collapse are all expressions of God’s displeasure with American infernalities like Will and Grace.

In one of his typically breathtaking moments of Biblical exegesis, Phelps explained the most notorious of his organization’s slogans:

“Fags” is a contraction of the word “faggots,” which is an elegant metaphor for all the homosexuals and their enablers. It’s elegant, and its appropriate. They’re called faggots . . . because they have kindled the fires of God Almighty’s wrath. They’ve kindled the fires of wrath in their lust, one for another — kindled the fires of wrath by virtue of the place they’re headed, where the worm that eats ‘em never dies and the fires never quench. By a multitude of common sense arguments, “God hates fags” is not only true, it’s profound, and it’s divine. And we are intent on publishing that message to the whole world. God indeed hates fags.

If Phelps didn’t cause real people genuine agony by picketing their loved ones’ funerals or harassing them through the mail and in the media, one might be tempted to dismiss him as a clever performance artist, a useful idiot cultivated by the Anita Bryant caucus. After all, among other things, Phelps’ antics provide a helpful alibi to less-obviously deranged public figures who — having inoculated themselves by denouncing the open and unsophisticated hatred espoused by the WBC — endorse more subtle and consequentially homophobic policies. Social conservatives (and squeamish liberals without the courage to oppose them) might not love gays and lesbians enough to protect them from job discrimination or offer them equal rights of contract in marriage, but — thank heaven for small favors — at least they don’t hate them enough to picket their funerals or blame infrastructural failures on them.

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  • aimai

    Sounds like phelps has a lot in common with Rev. Sun Young Moon. History is replete with would be charistmatic leaders who hold their followers in rigid control while going way past the limit with their own behavior. Sometimes these guys actually do pretty well–Moon, Larouche, that est guy but sometimes they aren’t charistmatic for the job and they have to simply oppress their own family members while holding the rest of the world at bay.
    aimai

  • Jon H

    My dream scenario would be for Phelps to open a kiosk on the grounds of the Creation museum.
    That’d be a self-discrediting twofer!

  • Jon H

    My dream scenario would be for Phelps to open a kiosk on the grounds of the Creation museum.
    That’d be a self-discrediting twofer!

  • Jon H

    My dream scenario would be for Phelps to open a kiosk on the grounds of the Creation museum.
    That’d be a self-discrediting twofer!

  • strategichamlet

    “It was that fine day not two weeks ago I knew there was a God when Fred Phelps and Co. were told to fuck off and pay…”
    What’d the Constitution ever do to you Luke? Do you really think that in the Land of the Free and Home of the Brave someone should get fined $10 million for “outrageous” speech? Outrageous, now there is a GREAT legal standard for discriminating non-protected speech. It wouldn’t be that hard to come up with 12 people who would find half the posts on this blog (or any other) “outrageous.”
    I hope you are right about it getting killed on appeal because this decision is a civil liberties disaster.

  • strategichamlet

    “It was that fine day not two weeks ago I knew there was a God when Fred Phelps and Co. were told to fuck off and pay…”
    What’d the Constitution ever do to you Luke? Do you really think that in the Land of the Free and Home of the Brave someone should get fined $10 million for “outrageous” speech? Outrageous, now there is a GREAT legal standard for discriminating non-protected speech. It wouldn’t be that hard to come up with 12 people who would find half the posts on this blog (or any other) “outrageous.”
    I hope you are right about it getting killed on appeal because this decision is a civil liberties disaster.

  • strategichamlet

    “It was that fine day not two weeks ago I knew there was a God when Fred Phelps and Co. were told to fuck off and pay…”
    What’d the Constitution ever do to you Luke? Do you really think that in the Land of the Free and Home of the Brave someone should get fined $10 million for “outrageous” speech? Outrageous, now there is a GREAT legal standard for discriminating non-protected speech. It wouldn’t be that hard to come up with 12 people who would find half the posts on this blog (or any other) “outrageous.”
    I hope you are right about it getting killed on appeal because this decision is a civil liberties disaster.

  • “equal rights of contract in marriage”
    This is a novel idea.
    I know about the law of contracts. I know about marriage & family law.
    I donit know what the “equal rights of contract in marriage” is, however.
    Is he referring to the “right to contract” – i.e.- Lochner v. New York??
    If he gives it some thought I think he will discover the two concepts are more similar than he is comfortable with.

  • “equal rights of contract in marriage”
    This is a novel idea.
    I know about the law of contracts. I know about marriage & family law.
    I donit know what the “equal rights of contract in marriage” is, however.
    Is he referring to the “right to contract” – i.e.- Lochner v. New York??
    If he gives it some thought I think he will discover the two concepts are more similar than he is comfortable with.

  • “equal rights of contract in marriage”
    This is a novel idea.
    I know about the law of contracts. I know about marriage & family law.
    I donit know what the “equal rights of contract in marriage” is, however.
    Is he referring to the “right to contract” – i.e.- Lochner v. New York??
    If he gives it some thought I think he will discover the two concepts are more similar than he is comfortable with.

  • Uncle Kvetch

    Phelps’ antics provide a helpful alibi to less-obviously deranged public figures who — having inoculated themselves by denouncing the open and unsophisticated hatred espoused by the WBC — endorse more subtle and consequentially homophobic policies
    Aye, there’s the rub–it’s that pesky Overton Window.
    Phelps is a godsend to homophobes, and we laugh him off at our peril.

  • Uncle Kvetch

    Phelps’ antics provide a helpful alibi to less-obviously deranged public figures who — having inoculated themselves by denouncing the open and unsophisticated hatred espoused by the WBC — endorse more subtle and consequentially homophobic policies
    Aye, there’s the rub–it’s that pesky Overton Window.
    Phelps is a godsend to homophobes, and we laugh him off at our peril.

  • Uncle Kvetch

    Phelps’ antics provide a helpful alibi to less-obviously deranged public figures who — having inoculated themselves by denouncing the open and unsophisticated hatred espoused by the WBC — endorse more subtle and consequentially homophobic policies
    Aye, there’s the rub–it’s that pesky Overton Window.
    Phelps is a godsend to homophobes, and we laugh him off at our peril.

  • aimai

    stratigichamlet,
    I didn’t read the decision so I don’t know about a “civil liberties disaster” but its not clear to me how picketing the home or the funeral of a private citizen can ever be a legitimate form of political expression. Why doesn’t it fall under generic “harrassment” laws and pain and suffering too? First amendment rights don’t give people the right to scream any obscenties they want at private citizens, do they?
    I’m far more concerned with how blithely the police, secret service, and local government entities have given away citizens rights to free speech by the creation of “free speech zones” that specifically protect public figures from public dispute, petition, and redress of grievances. The phelps case, depending on how it was decided, doesn’t seem to enter into this kind of suppression of free speech at all.
    aimai

  • aimai

    stratigichamlet,
    I didn’t read the decision so I don’t know about a “civil liberties disaster” but its not clear to me how picketing the home or the funeral of a private citizen can ever be a legitimate form of political expression. Why doesn’t it fall under generic “harrassment” laws and pain and suffering too? First amendment rights don’t give people the right to scream any obscenties they want at private citizens, do they?
    I’m far more concerned with how blithely the police, secret service, and local government entities have given away citizens rights to free speech by the creation of “free speech zones” that specifically protect public figures from public dispute, petition, and redress of grievances. The phelps case, depending on how it was decided, doesn’t seem to enter into this kind of suppression of free speech at all.
    aimai

  • aimai

    stratigichamlet,
    I didn’t read the decision so I don’t know about a “civil liberties disaster” but its not clear to me how picketing the home or the funeral of a private citizen can ever be a legitimate form of political expression. Why doesn’t it fall under generic “harrassment” laws and pain and suffering too? First amendment rights don’t give people the right to scream any obscenties they want at private citizens, do they?
    I’m far more concerned with how blithely the police, secret service, and local government entities have given away citizens rights to free speech by the creation of “free speech zones” that specifically protect public figures from public dispute, petition, and redress of grievances. The phelps case, depending on how it was decided, doesn’t seem to enter into this kind of suppression of free speech at all.
    aimai

  • strategichamlet

    aimai,
    I too am very worried about all the other issues you mention, but even given all that I think this case is still very important to future speech rights for the following reasons:
    -the Phelps people were > 1000ft from the funeral
    -the father did not even know they were there until the next day when he saw it on the news
    -the tort under which the result was found is applicable in any setting, not just funerals
    -the standard was that the speech be “outrageous” and “intended to cause emotional distress” both of which seem extremely vague.
    -the extremely large cash penalty
    Eugene Volokh has a good series of posts up about this. It is pretty shocking reading the comments there how many people are just not supportive of free speech when they really don’t like the speech.

  • strategichamlet

    aimai,
    I too am very worried about all the other issues you mention, but even given all that I think this case is still very important to future speech rights for the following reasons:
    -the Phelps people were > 1000ft from the funeral
    -the father did not even know they were there until the next day when he saw it on the news
    -the tort under which the result was found is applicable in any setting, not just funerals
    -the standard was that the speech be “outrageous” and “intended to cause emotional distress” both of which seem extremely vague.
    -the extremely large cash penalty
    Eugene Volokh has a good series of posts up about this. It is pretty shocking reading the comments there how many people are just not supportive of free speech when they really don’t like the speech.

  • strategichamlet

    aimai,
    I too am very worried about all the other issues you mention, but even given all that I think this case is still very important to future speech rights for the following reasons:
    -the Phelps people were > 1000ft from the funeral
    -the father did not even know they were there until the next day when he saw it on the news
    -the tort under which the result was found is applicable in any setting, not just funerals
    -the standard was that the speech be “outrageous” and “intended to cause emotional distress” both of which seem extremely vague.
    -the extremely large cash penalty
    Eugene Volokh has a good series of posts up about this. It is pretty shocking reading the comments there how many people are just not supportive of free speech when they really don’t like the speech.

  • Gus

    No one has pointed out the obvious fact that the good Reverend is obviously a self-loathing homosexual.

  • Gus

    No one has pointed out the obvious fact that the good Reverend is obviously a self-loathing homosexual.

  • Gus

    No one has pointed out the obvious fact that the good Reverend is obviously a self-loathing homosexual.

  • aimai

    I took a vow never to read eugene volokh so you could say that I don’t respect speech if I don’t like it. But it wouldn’t be true. I think there is a huge distinction between public and private citizens that is at issue here (for me) that is utterly distinct from other free speech issues. I’m more than willign to believe that the courts have made the wrong call–but I don’t think that just because the speech is hideously wrong that the speech needs to be defended, or ought to be defended, on free speech grounds. I guess what I’m saying is that I didn’t give up my right to be disgusted with some people and their actions even though I am a supporter of free political speech. But was this political speech? And in what sense was it political speech? I’m tired of blanketing every kind of advertising and lying and harrassing as political speech.
    aimai

  • aimai

    I took a vow never to read eugene volokh so you could say that I don’t respect speech if I don’t like it. But it wouldn’t be true. I think there is a huge distinction between public and private citizens that is at issue here (for me) that is utterly distinct from other free speech issues. I’m more than willign to believe that the courts have made the wrong call–but I don’t think that just because the speech is hideously wrong that the speech needs to be defended, or ought to be defended, on free speech grounds. I guess what I’m saying is that I didn’t give up my right to be disgusted with some people and their actions even though I am a supporter of free political speech. But was this political speech? And in what sense was it political speech? I’m tired of blanketing every kind of advertising and lying and harrassing as political speech.
    aimai

  • aimai

    I took a vow never to read eugene volokh so you could say that I don’t respect speech if I don’t like it. But it wouldn’t be true. I think there is a huge distinction between public and private citizens that is at issue here (for me) that is utterly distinct from other free speech issues. I’m more than willign to believe that the courts have made the wrong call–but I don’t think that just because the speech is hideously wrong that the speech needs to be defended, or ought to be defended, on free speech grounds. I guess what I’m saying is that I didn’t give up my right to be disgusted with some people and their actions even though I am a supporter of free political speech. But was this political speech? And in what sense was it political speech? I’m tired of blanketing every kind of advertising and lying and harrassing as political speech.
    aimai

  • INotI

    What’s so vague about “intended to cause harm”? The tort itself goes back over 100 years, there’s more than enough precedent to guide any interpretation of it in a court today, and it’s no more vague than any other standard courts use, such as “reasonableness”.

  • INotI

    What’s so vague about “intended to cause harm”? The tort itself goes back over 100 years, there’s more than enough precedent to guide any interpretation of it in a court today, and it’s no more vague than any other standard courts use, such as “reasonableness”.

  • INotI

    What’s so vague about “intended to cause harm”? The tort itself goes back over 100 years, there’s more than enough precedent to guide any interpretation of it in a court today, and it’s no more vague than any other standard courts use, such as “reasonableness”.

  • Mike

    I guess what I’m saying is that I didn’t give up my right to be disgusted with some people and their actions even though I am a supporter of free political speech. But was this political speech?
    Careful, aimai, you’re channeling Robert Bork, who was quite happy to apply the “not political speech” test to books he considered obscene.

  • Mike

    I guess what I’m saying is that I didn’t give up my right to be disgusted with some people and their actions even though I am a supporter of free political speech. But was this political speech?
    Careful, aimai, you’re channeling Robert Bork, who was quite happy to apply the “not political speech” test to books he considered obscene.

  • Mike

    I guess what I’m saying is that I didn’t give up my right to be disgusted with some people and their actions even though I am a supporter of free political speech. But was this political speech?
    Careful, aimai, you’re channeling Robert Bork, who was quite happy to apply the “not political speech” test to books he considered obscene.

  • strategichamlet

    I guess I’m worried about a whirlwind of suits from Donald Wildmon and co. against the makers and distributors of everything from “The Last Temptation of Christ” to “What’s the Matter with Kansas?”
    You don’t give up your right to be disgusted, but do you really think it is a $10million actionable tort?
    As for Eugene Volokh, I don’t much like him either and most of his commenters are downright scary, but I have a need to read conservative blogs to remind myself why I’m a liberal.

  • strategichamlet

    I guess I’m worried about a whirlwind of suits from Donald Wildmon and co. against the makers and distributors of everything from “The Last Temptation of Christ” to “What’s the Matter with Kansas?”
    You don’t give up your right to be disgusted, but do you really think it is a $10million actionable tort?
    As for Eugene Volokh, I don’t much like him either and most of his commenters are downright scary, but I have a need to read conservative blogs to remind myself why I’m a liberal.

  • strategichamlet

    I guess I’m worried about a whirlwind of suits from Donald Wildmon and co. against the makers and distributors of everything from “The Last Temptation of Christ” to “What’s the Matter with Kansas?”
    You don’t give up your right to be disgusted, but do you really think it is a $10million actionable tort?
    As for Eugene Volokh, I don’t much like him either and most of his commenters are downright scary, but I have a need to read conservative blogs to remind myself why I’m a liberal.

  • coozledad

    I think this is an area where there is no legal lodgment against bad behavior, but it might be argued there is a compelling public interest in keeping bombthrowers from intruding on people’s grief.
    Nabokov said it nicely. Your sadness is inviolable, your exclusive property.

  • coozledad

    I think this is an area where there is no legal lodgment against bad behavior, but it might be argued there is a compelling public interest in keeping bombthrowers from intruding on people’s grief.
    Nabokov said it nicely. Your sadness is inviolable, your exclusive property.

  • coozledad

    I think this is an area where there is no legal lodgment against bad behavior, but it might be argued there is a compelling public interest in keeping bombthrowers from intruding on people’s grief.
    Nabokov said it nicely. Your sadness is inviolable, your exclusive property.

  • aimai

    I don’t think I’m channelling Robert Bork, I’m just stating the case that some speech, in fact, may not be political speech. I’m not sure that all speech is political speech–and some things that are not speech at all may be protected as though they were speech. Every definition puts some things on one side of the line and some things on the other–we can argue about where we want the line to fall, and we should, but there is *always an argument to be made.*
    I agree with strategichamlet who points out that under certain circumstances the far right will use this lawsuit, like they use everything, as a way of surpressing the very existence of speech or ideas they don’t like. I think that is a real danger. But I’m not sure that *any* tort finding would run that risk. IANAL and like I said I didn’t read the decision so I don’t know the grounds it was decided upon. But the right wing has used every other legal and non legal means to surpress speech, dissent, and novel ideas for thousands of years and they haven’t always needed legal precedent to do it. Each advance of some kind of legal right (the ADA, freedom of expression, freedom of religion) and even commonplaces of liberal thought (tolerance) has been an excuse for some right winger to complain that they aren’t allowed (variously) to exclude “heather and her two mommies” from their kids school to a refusal of schools to show “the passion of the christ.” They will always use every trick in the book to get what they want. I’m not sure I think it means there shouldn’t be some laws respecting the privacy rights of individual families–even though I know that some family is going to sue an anti-war group for daring to publish their son’s name on a list of war dead. People will sue. They can always sue. But that doesn’t mean the court won’t be able to differentiate between a legitimate cause of action/grievance and an illegitimate one.
    aimai

  • aimai

    I don’t think I’m channelling Robert Bork, I’m just stating the case that some speech, in fact, may not be political speech. I’m not sure that all speech is political speech–and some things that are not speech at all may be protected as though they were speech. Every definition puts some things on one side of the line and some things on the other–we can argue about where we want the line to fall, and we should, but there is *always an argument to be made.*
    I agree with strategichamlet who points out that under certain circumstances the far right will use this lawsuit, like they use everything, as a way of surpressing the very existence of speech or ideas they don’t like. I think that is a real danger. But I’m not sure that *any* tort finding would run that risk. IANAL and like I said I didn’t read the decision so I don’t know the grounds it was decided upon. But the right wing has used every other legal and non legal means to surpress speech, dissent, and novel ideas for thousands of years and they haven’t always needed legal precedent to do it. Each advance of some kind of legal right (the ADA, freedom of expression, freedom of religion) and even commonplaces of liberal thought (tolerance) has been an excuse for some right winger to complain that they aren’t allowed (variously) to exclude “heather and her two mommies” from their kids school to a refusal of schools to show “the passion of the christ.” They will always use every trick in the book to get what they want. I’m not sure I think it means there shouldn’t be some laws respecting the privacy rights of individual families–even though I know that some family is going to sue an anti-war group for daring to publish their son’s name on a list of war dead. People will sue. They can always sue. But that doesn’t mean the court won’t be able to differentiate between a legitimate cause of action/grievance and an illegitimate one.
    aimai

  • aimai

    I don’t think I’m channelling Robert Bork, I’m just stating the case that some speech, in fact, may not be political speech. I’m not sure that all speech is political speech–and some things that are not speech at all may be protected as though they were speech. Every definition puts some things on one side of the line and some things on the other–we can argue about where we want the line to fall, and we should, but there is *always an argument to be made.*
    I agree with strategichamlet who points out that under certain circumstances the far right will use this lawsuit, like they use everything, as a way of surpressing the very existence of speech or ideas they don’t like. I think that is a real danger. But I’m not sure that *any* tort finding would run that risk. IANAL and like I said I didn’t read the decision so I don’t know the grounds it was decided upon. But the right wing has used every other legal and non legal means to surpress speech, dissent, and novel ideas for thousands of years and they haven’t always needed legal precedent to do it. Each advance of some kind of legal right (the ADA, freedom of expression, freedom of religion) and even commonplaces of liberal thought (tolerance) has been an excuse for some right winger to complain that they aren’t allowed (variously) to exclude “heather and her two mommies” from their kids school to a refusal of schools to show “the passion of the christ.” They will always use every trick in the book to get what they want. I’m not sure I think it means there shouldn’t be some laws respecting the privacy rights of individual families–even though I know that some family is going to sue an anti-war group for daring to publish their son’s name on a list of war dead. People will sue. They can always sue. But that doesn’t mean the court won’t be able to differentiate between a legitimate cause of action/grievance and an illegitimate one.
    aimai

  • First, this isn’t really a pure First Amendment case, as Phelps would have you believe, because the government wasn’t involved in suppressing Phelps’s speech (i.e., he wasn’t prosecuted under the funeral picketing laws), so let’s just all take a deep breath about the jackbooted government thugs.
    Second, this was a tort case, for invasion of privacy and intentional infliction of emotional distress. The biggest problem I see with the case is that in order to support the verdict (and this was a jury verdict, so no decision), there would have to be evidence that Phelps had a duty not to cause harm to Snyder.
    Third, the right to free speech is not limitless, particularly wrt private speech. This is especially so for damaging speech. Maybe you can’t get arrested for it, but that doesn’t mean that the target of your defamatory or abusive speech can’t sue you for it. And that’s without even getting into the reasonable time, place and manner restrictions that have long been allowable.

  • First, this isn’t really a pure First Amendment case, as Phelps would have you believe, because the government wasn’t involved in suppressing Phelps’s speech (i.e., he wasn’t prosecuted under the funeral picketing laws), so let’s just all take a deep breath about the jackbooted government thugs.
    Second, this was a tort case, for invasion of privacy and intentional infliction of emotional distress. The biggest problem I see with the case is that in order to support the verdict (and this was a jury verdict, so no decision), there would have to be evidence that Phelps had a duty not to cause harm to Snyder.
    Third, the right to free speech is not limitless, particularly wrt private speech. This is especially so for damaging speech. Maybe you can’t get arrested for it, but that doesn’t mean that the target of your defamatory or abusive speech can’t sue you for it. And that’s without even getting into the reasonable time, place and manner restrictions that have long been allowable.

  • First, this isn’t really a pure First Amendment case, as Phelps would have you believe, because the government wasn’t involved in suppressing Phelps’s speech (i.e., he wasn’t prosecuted under the funeral picketing laws), so let’s just all take a deep breath about the jackbooted government thugs.
    Second, this was a tort case, for invasion of privacy and intentional infliction of emotional distress. The biggest problem I see with the case is that in order to support the verdict (and this was a jury verdict, so no decision), there would have to be evidence that Phelps had a duty not to cause harm to Snyder.
    Third, the right to free speech is not limitless, particularly wrt private speech. This is especially so for damaging speech. Maybe you can’t get arrested for it, but that doesn’t mean that the target of your defamatory or abusive speech can’t sue you for it. And that’s without even getting into the reasonable time, place and manner restrictions that have long been allowable.

  • Sad to say guys I am still around and growing. No dead here, maybe there?

  • Sad to say guys I am still around and growing. No dead here, maybe there?

  • Sad to say guys I am still around and growing. No dead here, maybe there?

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