My former First Amendment client Fred Phelps dies. Founded the Westboro Baptist Church

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Mar 21, 2014 My former First Amendment client Fred Phelps dies. Founded the Westboro Baptist Church

The First Amendment means little if not all people’s First Amendment rights are protected. Their First Amendment rights are not sufficiently protected without qualified lawyers to defend them. Defending people whose views I abhor brings me in touch with people with whom I would not otherwise wish to associate. Along the way, I learn to tolerate everyone more, even when dealing with intolerant clients.

The recently-deceased pastor Fred W. Phelps and the members of the Westboro Baptist Church that he founded repeatedly have spouted harsh and hurtful words about gay people, Jewish people (I am Jewish at that), and many politicians and religious leaders. They tell us how we are going to hell if we do not obey the deity. I do not like those words at all. I am free to combat their speech with my own speech. They have the First Amendment right to this expression.

In 2007, in a federal trial that lasted over one week, I defended pastor Fred W. Phelps and the Westboro Baptist Church against Albert Snyder’s lawsuit arising from picketing by Phelps and several other church members about 1000 feet from the Westminster, Maryland, funeral of Mr. Snyder’s son Matthew — who died while serving in Iraq with the Marines — and the church’s online posting about the military, Matthew Snyder and his parents. On appeal, which I did not handle, the Fourth Circuit and Supreme Court wisely overturned Mr. Snyder’s victory, on First Amendment grounds.

I spent many months and many hours on my defense in this case, including depositions at my office when it was in Maryland, in York, Pennsylvania, in Westminster, Maryland, and in Kansas City, Missouri, nearby WBC’s Topeka church. I visited the church and spent substantial time with several of its members. They treated me respectfully. They knew I disagreed with their messages. Here is more on my viewpoint about my defense of Phelps and the WBC in court. and

Fred Phelps died this week. It remains to be seen whether anyone with his church will be able to fill his shoes in being identified as the main face behind his church.

The First Amendment is better for the Supreme Court’s ruling in the Snyder v. Phelps case.

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