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By David L. Hudson Jr.
First Amendment scholar

“They turned America over to fags; They’re bringing them home in body bags.” The Topeka, Kan.-based Westboro Baptist Church displays such inflammatory, anti-gay statements when protesting the funerals of American soldiers killed in Iraq. The church asserts that God is punishing the country for its support of gay rights. The Rev. Fred Phelps, the church's founder, and members of his family have garnered many headlines through the years for their vehement protests against homosexuality, including picketing the funeral of Matthew Shepard, a gay man beaten to death in Wyoming in 1998.

The church’s activities led the Kansas Legislature to pass an anti-funeral protest law called the Kansas Funeral Picketing Act in 1992. Phelps challenged the constitutionality of the law and in 1995 a federal judge ruled the Kansas law was unconstitutionally vague with respect to its terms “before” and “after” a funeral. The Legislature then amended the statute to provide: “It is unlawful for any person to engage in picketing before or about any cemetery, church or mortuary within one hour prior to, during and two hours following the commencement of a funeral.” For many years, the issue remained confined in Kansas until Westboro’s protests drew the ire of lawmakers across the country.

State measures
The church’s more recent protests unleashed a torrent of legislative activity rarely rivaled in the annals of First Amendment history. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, 34 states have introduced bills to limit protests near funerals; 27 of those states have passed such measures (not including Kansas).

The measures generally criminalize protests near funeral processions as a form of disorderly conduct. The measures typically impose both time and distance limitations. Some of the laws only prohibit protesting at military funerals, while many others ban protests at any funeral.

The Oklahoma Funeral Picketing Act blocks protests at military funerals, prohibiting such activity from one hour before to two hours after the funeral. It also prohibits protests within 300 feet of the location of the funeral service or 300 feet of the “military funeral procession or burial.”

On the other hand, the Illinois law forbids protests at any funeral “within 200 feet of any ingress or egress of a funeral site.” The Illinois measure also prohibits the display “of any visual images that convey fighting words or actual or veiled threats against any other person.”

All in all, in addition to Kansas’ older law, funeral-protest laws have been passed in the following states: Alabama, Colorado, Delaware, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maryland, Michigan, Minnesota, Mississippi, Missouri, Nebraska, New Jersey, North Carolina, Ohio, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, South Dakota, Tennessee, Texas, Virginia and Wisconsin.

Kentucky court case
Lawsuits have been filed challenging the constitutionality of such measures in three states — Kentucky, Missouri and Ohio. As of October 2006, only one court had issued a decision. A federal district court issued a preliminary injunction on Sept. 26, 2006. preventing enforcement of Kentucky’s law because of First Amendment concerns.

In McQueary v. Stumbo, the court determined that parts of the Kentucky law, which banned all types of demonstrations within 300 feet of funerals and funeral processions, “burden substantially more speech than is necessary to prevent interferences with a funeral or to protect funeral attendees from unwanted, obtrusive communications that are otherwise impractical to avoid.”

The judge held that the law was content-neutral and recognized the privacy interests of family members at funerals. However, the court said the law was not narrowly tailored enough to satisfy constitutional standards.

“Certainly the Commonwealth has an interest in showing respect and compassion for the deceased and for their families, but we cannot allow lawmakers to trample upon the First Amendment in the process,” said ACLU of Kentucky staff attorney Lili Lutgens in a news release. “Today, the federal court recognized that even speech that most people find distasteful is still protected by the Constitution.”

Federal legislation
Congress has entered the fray over funeral protests. In March 2006, Sen. Evan Bayh, D-Ind., introduced the Dignity for Military Funerals Act of 2006, which would bar picketing within 300 feet of a military funeral for a period of one hour before to one hour after the ceremony. The measure was referred to the Senate Judiciary Committee.

Several months later, Congress passed the more narrowly confined Respect for America’s Fallen Heroes Act and President George W. Bush signed it into law on May 29, 2006. The law broadly prohibits any type of demonstration “under the control of the National Cemetery Administration or on the property of Arlington National Cemetery unless the demonstration has been approved by the cemetery superintendent or the director of the property on which the cemetery is located.” It imposes both time (one hour before and after) and distance requirements (150 feet from road and 300 feet from the cemetery).

The last section of the federal law explains why so many states have rushed to enact and pass similar legislation: “It is the sense of Congress that each State should enact legislation to restrict demonstrations near any military funeral.”

Constitutional concerns
The measures are designed to protect family privacy and prevent emotional distress. Supporters of the measures argue that protecting privacy amounts to a compelling state interest.

In the context of the personal privacy exemption in the Freedom of Information Act, the U.S. Supreme Court recognized in 2004 in National Archives and Records Administration v. Favish the strong privacy interests of family members.

“Family members have a personal stake in honoring and mourning their dead and objecting to unwarranted public exploitation that, by intruding upon their own grief, tends to degrade the rites and respect they seek to accord to the deceased person who was once their own,” Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote in Favish. Though the Court addressed privacy in the FOIA context, Kennedy’s statement indicates the depth of the Court’s commitment to family privacy.

The funeral anti-picketing measures reflect state legislators’ similar concerns with families’ privacy rights. For example, the new Oklahoma law provides that “the interests of families in privately and peacefully mourning the loss of deceased relatives are violated when funerals are targeted for picketing and other public demonstrations.”

Oklahoma Republican state Rep. Paul Wesselhoft, sponsor of the measure and a retired U.S. Army chaplain, said in an October 2005 news release: “I am not regulating content of speech. Citizens are afforded various places at numerous times to picket, protest and fully exercise their First Amendment rights — precious rights that I have defended as a combat veteran, but a funeral is not such a place or time. Grieving families have rights, too.”

Ann Stock, legislative aide to Missouri state GOP Sen. Charlie Shields, sponsor of the new Missouri law, described the measure's impetus: “Senator Shields filed this legislation after a group protested the funeral of a fallen soldier from the senator’s district. Those involved with the funeral, including the family, were very upset that this type of protest happened during their time of grieving.”

Stock said the measure “does not specify any certain type of protest or the reason for the protest” and is therefore content-neutral.

Phelps’ group contends all such measures infringe on First Amendment free-speech rights. The church argues that the proposed bills discriminate on the basis of content and viewpoint in flagrant violation of fundamental First Amendment principles.

On its Web site, the church says in a statement that it will challenge such legislation. The church warns legislators: “Your standard is ‘reasonable, time, place and manner restriction.’ If you go one bit over that line we’re going to litigate, and request fees.”

Leading free-speech experts agree that the funeral-picketing measures present troubling First Amendment issues.

“The rationale behind these laws is to stop an offensive type of expression (most people would agree this is offensive),” says Robert D. Richards, director of the Pennsylvania Center for the First Amendment, “but that’s the very type of expression the First Amendment continues to protect.”

The experts question whether the laws are content-neutral and, thus, do not discriminate against speech based on content. Supporters counter that the measures only impose reasonable time, place and manner restrictions on expression.

Robert M. O’Neil, founder and director of the Thomas Jefferson Center for the Protection of Free Expression, said: “Despite the apparent content neutrality, these measures target a particular subject matter in ways that — and for reasons that — imply a concern with content.

“I would not view such measures as time, place and manner limited — and would assume (for example) that symbolic displays respectful or laudatory of the deceased would not be banned,” he said.

O'Neil also pointed out that “only one occasion or event is targeted for quite unusual restrictions.”

Richards, author of Freedom's Voice: The Perilous Present and Uncertain Future of the First Amendment, said: “These laws do raise troubling First Amendment issues.

"The sidewalks and streets surrounding funeral homes, churches and the like are typically public fora, and the law governing restrictions on speech in a public forum is fairly well settled. Unless the government can demonstrate a compelling interest — and I frankly don’t see enough support for it in the legislative findings in [current legislative proposals] — it can only impose content-neutral time, place and manner restrictions on speech.

“Given that the expression at issue, ‘funeral protest,’ could easily be interpreted as a content-based restriction, the government will likely have a tough time defending the restriction,” Richards said.

“While most people — myself included — would sympathize with grieving family members at a funeral, I don’t find it to be a compelling governmental interest to restrict speech in the area of a funeral.”

Richards said disorderly conduct statutes are sometimes applied in a manner that restricts free-expression rights.

O’Neil agreed, saying: “What is seemingly a content-neutral time, place and manner regulation in fact has a content bias, not only by being so site-specific and thus targeting a particular message (related to funerals and burials) but clearly by constraining only one side of the issue, since a laudatory demonstration (‘military hero’) would clearly not be covered.”

“The time window does not help since the audience sought to be reached would not likely be present at any other time, save possibly on Memorial or Veterans Day and a few other such holidays,” O’Neil said. “Thus, a seemingly time-limited constraint is, de facto, a total ban on conveying an important message to a specific audience.”

Richards and O’Neil warn that many of the laws may not only be content-based but also may constitute an egregious form of content discrimination known as viewpoint discrimination. Content discrimination generally refers to general subject-matter discrimination, such as a law that bans political speeches in parks. Viewpoint discrimination goes beyond mere subject matter and restricts speech based on viewpoint. An example would be a law that prohibits Republican Party speakers in a park but allows Democratic Party speakers.

“The other question I would have is what would happen if people who loved the deceased held up signs outside the church or funeral home saying, ‘We love you. We’ll miss you,’” Richards said. “Would those folks face criminal charges? If not, there’s a viewpoint-based discrimination issue.”

Updated October 2006

 

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