Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli
RICHMOND (June 1, 2010) — Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli has decided not to join other states in an amicus brief on behalf of Albert Snyder in Snyder v. Phelps, which will soon be heard by the U.S. Supreme Court. Mr. Snyder is the father of Matthew Snyder, a soldier killed in Iraq whose funeral was picketed by Fred Phelps and his followers at the infamous Westboro Baptist Church.
Here is our statement, given by Brian Gottstein, director of communication:
The attorney general’s office deplores the absolutely vile and despicable acts of Fred Phelps and his followers. We also greatly sympathize with the Snyder family and all families who have experienced the hatefulness of these people. The attorney general has always been a strong supporter of the military, both in his words and in his work as a Senator. But the consequences of this case had to be looked at beyond what would happen just to Phelps and his followers.
This office has decided not to file a brief in Snyder v. Phelps, because the case could set a precedent that could severely curtail certain valid exercises of free speech. If protestors – whether political, civil rights, pro-life, or environmental – said something that offended the object of the protest to the point where that person felt damaged, the protestors could be sued. It then becomes a very subjective and difficult determination as to when the line is crossed from severely offensive speech to that which inflicts emotional distress. Several First Amendment scholars agree.
Virginia already has a statute that we believe balances free speech rights while stopping and even jailing those who would be so contemptible as to disrupt funeral or memorial services. That statute, 18.2-415(B), punishes as a class one misdemeanor (up to one year in jail and a fine of up to $2,500) someone who willfully disrupts a funeral or memorial service to the point of preventing or interfering with the orderly conduct of the event.
We do not think that regulation of speech through vague common law torts like intentional infliction of emotional distress strikes the proper balance between free speech and avoiding the unconscionable disruption of funerals. We think our statute does.
So long as the protesters stay within the letter of the law, the Constitution protects their right to express their views. In Virginia, if Phelps or others attempt this repugnant behavior, cross the line and violate the law, the attorney general’s office stands ready to provide any assistance to local prosecutors to vindicate the law.
Posted By Valerie Garner
Categories: Politics, State Politics
Tags: attorney_general, cuccinelli, lawsuit