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, 72, a 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 U.S. 4th 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 f--s" 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.
In September, the 4th Circuit Court threw out the Baltimore jury's entire award to Snyder on free-speech grounds. A month later, Westboro filed a motion to recoup court costs from both the original lawsuit and the appeal, for a total of $96,740.21. The judgment covers only some costs from the 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 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 Legion's message was picked up by conservative political blogger Michelle Malkin, who called the Westboro protesters "evil miscreants" and urged readers to donate.
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."