Richmond, Va. 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.
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.