Mixed Reactions to Laws Silencing Funeral Protests
California Gov. Edmund Brown (D) recently signed a bill which prevents protesters from coming within 300 feet of funerals in the state both during the ceremony and an hour before and after its conclusion. Brown vetoed a similar bill last year which proposed a 1,000-foot restriction on funeral protesters, citing a U.S. Supreme Court case against the infamous Westboro Baptist Church which ruled in favor of the group's freedom of speech.
Brown's new bill echoes one signed earlier in the summer by President Obama to quell funeral protesters—or, at least to turn down their volume. The "Honoring America's Veterans and Caring for Camp Lejeune Families Act of 2012" restricts where and when protesters can picket funerals held at national cemeteries. Obama signed the bill into law, saying that the time that “we have a moral sacred duty to our men and women in uniform. … The graves of our veterans are hallowed grounds.”
But while the funeral protest section of Obama’s law, Title VI, prohibits protesting at national cemeteries, Brown takes the measure to the local level, restricting protests at any funeral service in California
These laws clearly targets right-wing group protesters such as Westboro Baptist Church, which is known for carrying vulgar signs like "Thank God For Dead Soldiers." For those unfamiliar with the Westboro Baptist Church, a 23-minute investment in Brainwashed by the Westboro Baptist Church provides a glimpse into the lives of its members and illustrates the group's doctrine, which is the self-proclaimed opposition to the "fag lifestyle of soul-damning, nation-destroying filth."
Though it's easy to want to stifle voices of hateful protesters from sacred grounds, many argue that the Constitution clearly protects protesters' freedom of speech. One could even argue that those fallen soldiers fought to defend the protesters' right to express their opinions, despite how disagreeable they may be. But at what point are our First Amendment rights stretched too far to protecting hate-speech?
Responses to both Obama’s and Brown’s legislation is mixed on comment boards:
Lee Phillippi writes: “I’m not sure why people think the right to free speech means you can have … your speech anywhere and however you want it. Taggers think free speech is spray painting a wall. This isn’t any different. Harassing families of gay soldiers that died for their country should be considered a hate crime.”
Charles Capo writes: “such hypocrisy, americans always blabbing about free speech but as [soon as] you hear some words you don’t like then [it’s] 'overuse' of first amendment…shame on you."
On the matter of freedom of speech, Obama said, “… obviously we all defend our Constitution and the First Amendment and free speech, but we also believe that when men and women die in the service of their country and are laid to rest, it should be done with the utmost honor and respect."
Beginning on Jan. 1, those in violation of California’s new law could be punished with a fine of up to $1,000 and six months in jail. Still, members of Westboro Baptist Church claim that new laws will not deter the church from spreading God’s word. “We abide by all laws of God and man,” one member said.
Jennifer Hicks is a Communications Intern for Campus Progress.