Defamation suit against controversial church moves forward

A Lance Corporal in the United States Marine Corps was killed in the line of duty while conducting combat operations in Iraq in March of 2006. Members of the outspoken Westboro Baptist Church (“WBC”) attended the Marine’s funeral, uninvited, to express their views against homosexuality, Catholocism, and the military. On one of its websites, WBC also posted a number of extremely inflammatory statements (which will not be repeated here) about the deceased Marine’s parents.

In response to these statements, the parents filed suit agaisnt WBC and its pastor for defamation and a number of privacy-related torts. The defendants moved to dismiss, arguing, among other things, that the plaintiffs had failed to adequately plead a cause of action for defamation.

The court denied the motion to dismiss, holding that the complaint sufficiently alleged the requisite elements of defamation under Maryland law: (1) that the defendant made a defamatory communication to a third person, (2) that the statement was false, (3) that the defendant was at fault in communicating the statement, and (4) that the plaintiffs suffered harm.

One of WBC’s arguments that the court rejected was that the alleged defamatory speech was protected under the First Amendment, and within the ambit of the Supreme Court’s decision in Hustler Magazine v. Falwell, 485 U.S. 46 (1988). WBC had argued that the statements were merely opinions, and could not amount to defamation. The court found Hustler Magazine easily distinguishable, where there was nothing in the record to suggest that the plaintiffs were public figures.

Snyder v. Phelps, No. 06-1389, 2006 WL 3081106 (D.Md., October 30, 2006).