Protesting at funeral bill pushes through Missouri's legislature
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Protesting at funeral bill pushes through Missouri's legislature

Date: March 24, 2011
By: Emily Kissee
State Capitol Bureau
Links: The bill; Snyder v. Phelps;

Funeral protesting has been a highly contested issue for both national and state lawmakers. At Missouri’s Capitol, legislators are attempting to place restrictions funeral protesting...again.
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Wrap: While the Supreme Court recently ruled in favor of the rights of protesters, Missouri lawmakers are working to make it a crime to protest near or during a funeral.

Even if the legislation passes in Missouri, it may not go into effect. Just last August, a U.S. district judge declared two funeral protest laws in Missouri unconstitutional.
Saying these protest laws weren't narrowly tailored enough or served a compelling government interest.
But now lawmakers are back.
The bill's sponsor, West Plains Republican Representative Ward Franz says this legislation is something Missouri needs.

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Description: "It's a simple idea, to allow families to mourn the loss of a loved one in peace and to give them a chance to have some closure in a very difficult time."

His bill would make it a crime to protest within 500 feet of a funeral, two hours before and two hours following the service.
The recent U.S. Supreme Court decision in Snyder v.(versus) Phelps was a civil case that ruled groups cannot win damages for intentional infliction of emtional distress.
Sandy Davidson is a Media Law Professor at The University of Missouri.
She says the Supreme Court used the precedent Hustler v.(versus) Falwell, in which the high court ruled that outlandish speech is too subjective of a standard to win a suit.

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Description: "Some speech can be outrageous, it can inflict emotional distress, but the Supreme court again is balancing interests and saying that in this particular case that a jury simply could not award Mr. Snyder damages for this peacful protesting, the picketing that occurred 1,000 feet away from the funeral."

Although groups cannot win damages for emotional distress, Davidson says this decision keeps the door open for reasonable time, place, and manner funeral protest restrictions.

And that's what's sitting in Missouri's legislature.
Franz says his bill with its current restrictions may have to be reduced to its original limitations, which were 300 feet of a service, one hour before and after the funeral.
Eastern Missouri Democratic Representative Linda Black says the larger restrictions are best, because they'd better protect grieving families.

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Description: "I've had instances in my district where this has taken place and you see the grieving family members, who not only are having to lay their loved ones to rest but also have to see kind of a mockery in protests made of their loved one's funeral and I think that is wrong."

Five years ago, in Black’s district, the Westboro Baptist Church threatened to picket at a fallen soldier's funeral.
Since then, Margie Phelps, an attorney and member of the church, says they've protested at nearly 800 funerals since 2005.
Phelps says Westboro has been mocked numerous times in the media.

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Description: "We're an open book. So there's not any aspect of our being that hasn't been mocked and villified. And you know what? We are all good with it, 100 percent good."

Phelps says soldier's funerals are highlighted by the media and it is Westboro's duty to spread their message when there is an available public platform.

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Description: "When God is dealing with the peoople for their sins and our message is that is happening because of your sin if you want it to stop, you have to stop sinning, we've got to go to where the attention is on God dealing with the people. When it gets your attention is when we talk to you."

University of Misouri student and aquaintence of the deceased, Chelsea Hawkins, attended a funeral that the Westboro Baptist Church protested.

Hawkins says hundreds gathered in support of fallen soldier Jacob Carver.

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Description: "It was really great to see all these people together to support the family, so, that the family didn't even ever have to see them because they left before the funeral procession started."

Hawkins says even with the large number of people gathered in support of Carver, she could still see their signs and hear their chanting.

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Description: "They were chanting like God hates America to the tune of 'America the Beautiful.' They had made up their whole song."

Franz says the Westboro Baptist Church have the right to protest, but need limitations.

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Description: "These men and women from Westboro Baptist Church have the right to protest,they have the right to speak, we're just putting that limitation on how close they can be and when."
Opponents of the bill say First Amendment rights need to be protected, even if the speech is highly unpopular.  
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Description: "The democracy cannot function unless its citizens have the freedom to speak out."

That was ACLU's Mid-Missouri Chapter President Dan Viets (veets). Viets says restricting unpopular speech is an erosion of the First Amendment.

He says it's the government's obligation to protect this type of speech.  

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Description: "The freedom to speak out is never an issue when the speech is popular. We're rarely, if ever going to find a case where the government has tried to restrict the ability of people to say things that are popular. It is always the unpopular speech."

The bill got overwhelming support in the House and needs two more votes in the Senate.
Other states like Nebraska, Iowa and Oregon are considering similar legislation.
From the state Capitol, I’m Emily Kissee.