Tuesday, March 30, 2010

He has to pay WHAT?

W. Charles Bailey Jr., a Baltimore attorney who says that this blog is one of his favorite diversions, has found what he thinks is an error in an Associated Press article, and with it, he raises a question about editing.

He has given me permission to quote at length from his note:

Mr. Bailey: I have a copy editor question that may actually be a topic for your blog.  It seems to be a classic example of a lack of good copy editing.

I opened my NY Times browser I and found the following AP Article:

Maryland:  Dead Marine 's Father Must Pay Protestor


March 29, 2010

Lawyers for the father of a Marine who died in Iraq say a court has ordered him to pay legal costs for the anti-gay protesters who picketed his son’s funeral. The protesters are led by Fred Phelps of Westboro Baptist Church in Topeka, Kan. The father, Albert Snyder of York, Pa., had won a $5 million verdict against Mr. Phelps, but it was thrown out on appeal. On Friday, the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit, in Maryland, ordered Mr. Snyder to pay the costs of Mr. Phelps’s appeal. The United States Supreme Court agreed earlier this month to consider whether the protesters’ provocative messages, which include phrases like “Thank God for dead soldiers,” are protected by the First Amendment. Members of the church maintain that God hates homosexuality and that the death of soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan is God’s way of punishing the United States for its tolerance of it.

Reading the article, I was left with the understanding that the Court ordered the deceased Marine's Father to pay the legal fees of that despicable organization that pickets soldiers' funerals.  As a lawyer, I was stunned, because the American rule is that legal fees are not paid by the losing side. The only time the rule is set aside is when there is some statutory exception mandating a fee shift.

I suspected that the AP was mistaking "legal fees" with "costs" associated with an appeal.  Specifically, I suspected that the Court did not order the Marine's father to pay legal fees, but only ordered him to pay under a standard procedure that taxes the costs of photocopies to the losing party.  This is found in Federal Rule of Civil procedure 39, and applies in every case.  Suffice it to say, though, that the cost of copies, while expensive, are not the same thing as "legal costs" such as attorneys' fees in litigating an appeal.

I looked up the opinion and, sure enough, the only thing that was assessed was the usual copy fees.  In other words, this was what happens in every case.

So, my question is whether or not this is the sort of thing that a good copy editor should catch?  It certainly would be news if the court had assessed legal fees.  That's why I took the time to go and look up the case.  That didn't happen, though. Instead, the Court just applied the rules that have applied to all appeals for a long, long, time.

So is this a blunder or what?

My response: There certainly appears to be sloppiness in the Associated Press reports. One dated March 29 referred to an order “to pay the protesters’ appeal costs,” and one dated March 30 to an order “to pay legal costs.” Both stories were posted on The New York Times’s Web site, and the language appears in numerous other news sites.

I too thought that the order was to pay the legal fees. Had the article referred to an order to pay “court costs,” I would have assumed that it meant expenses such as filing fees and photocopying of documents, rather than attorney fees.

This is precisely the sort of distinction that a sharp-eyed copy editor might have made, and a well-timed question could have led to a call to the AP for a clarification, which the AP could have in turn sent out to subscribers. Unfortunately, there are fewer and fewer copy editors in the business, and those who remain have less and less time and encouragement to raise necessary questions. 


  1. Mr. Bailey adds: "Of course, I noted I made a mistake, so maybe I need a copy editor. It's Rule 39 of the Federal Rules of Appellate (not Civil) Procedure."

  2. Interestingly, the AP article (at least at the SFGate) says specifically "On Friday, Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit ordered Snyder to pay $16,510 to Fred Phelps."


  3. Wow! This is a wonderful example of exactly why really good copy editors are priceless: They need to know everything about everything in order to prevent stories from being about nothing.

    I mean, without Mr. Bailey's legal background, the less knowledgeable editor would miss that the story (as quoted in your post), even the headline, is essentially pointless (i.e., nothing out of the ordinary happened at all), which makes it a waste of paper, and worse yet, it is quite misleading. This happens in every field where expertise is needed. And the very best editors just know everything. I don't know how they do it, but I'm always impressed.

  4. Wait. Copy fees were $16,510? And he had to pay that? There should be a law against that.

  5. I just had to come back to say more, because I'm equally stunned by what ISN'T focused on in this story: Why aren't these protesters being charged with a hate crime? The man was trying to bury his son, who died--supposedly for their freedom(s). Why are they harassing this man? If they hate gay people, why are they focusing their hate on this one man in particular? I wish I could find more information on this story, but I couldn't. Can't they just march up and down a street proclaiming their hatred instead of making this man's son's funeral more of a tragedy than it already was? And what judge in his or her right mind would make that man pay anything--for what? for the privilege of being tormented by hateful idiots? What did he do?

  6. I actually did not run this story the other night because of the claim 'legal fees.' It didn't make sense to me that the court would do such a thing. I was the 'designer' that night, not the editor, but just the same, I kept waiting for AP to either retract or correct the story, which never seemed to happen. Thus, the article did not appear in the paper I built.

  7. Yes, I'm struggling with running the story too. the sum of $16K seems quite astonishing, and even the brief we're running (updated from the previous day's report, obviously) seems to make note of the oddity of the situation: BC-US--Funeral Protests,0156 
    Marine’s dad ordered to pay protesters’ court fees 
    Eds: For global distribution.
    BALTIMORE (AP) — The father of a Marine killed in Iraq and whose funeral was picketed by anti-gay protesters was ordered to pay the protesters’ appeal costs, his lawyers said Monday.
    On Friday, Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit ordered Snyder to pay $16,510 to Fred Phelps. Phelps is the leader of the Westboro Baptist Church, which conducted protests at Marine Lance Cpl. Matthew Snyder’s funeral in 2006.
    The two-page decision supplied by attorneys for Albert Snyder offered no details on how the court came to its decision.
    Attorneys also said Snyder is struggling to come up with fees associated with filing a brief with the U.S. Supreme Court.
    The decision adds “insult to injury,” said Sean Summers, one of Snyder’s lawyers.
    The high court agreed to consider whether the protesters’ message is protected by the First Amendment or limited by the competing privacy and religious rights of the mourners.

  8. villette1 said:
    "I kept waiting for AP to either retract or correct the story, which never seemed to happen."

    As Mr. McIntyre says, "this is precisely the sort of distinction that a sharp-eyed copy editor might have made, and a well-timed question could have led to a call to the AP for a clarification, which the AP could have in turn sent out to subscribers."

    You could have called the AP yourself! This is allowed - welcomed, I bet. There is a phone number at the top of every digest the AP moves. If you call and get someone who does not seem to be helpful (they exist in every organization!), ask to speak to the shift supervisor. And so on.

    So often, on all these grammar blogs, I see some version of, "I waited for the wire service to fix it" followed by some derisive comment. If you notice but take no action, how can you complain?

  9. I finally saw a little bit more about the story in the local paper this morning. Apparently, Mr. Snyder had sued the "church" for $10.9 million, and won it, but then it was overturned on appeal.

    The rich and famous can afford to hire security to protect their private events (weddings, parties, funerals), what are the rest of us supposed to do?

    Free speech is crucial, but we're not allowed to yell "fire" in the movie theater, and I'm sure we would face charges if we barged into someone's home and started spouting off.

    We need a law to prevent hateful people who are trying to make a public point from harassing individuals--even the FIRST time they do it (especially since events like funerals happen just once). If they are trying to change public opinion, they should have the guts to spout off where more of the public will stroll by (not at a private event). They should be willing to face any backlash that comes at them in a very public place, not be chickens, tormenting an individual (already under great stress--i.e., the weakest of us), out of the sight and hearing of most the rest of us. They remind me of child molesters.

    I hope Mr. Synder eventually gets his $10.9 million and a new law that will prevent this "church" (and any other similar "protesters") from harassing any others will be enacted soon.