Banning protests wrong

In response to an incident in Topeka, Kan., where members of Westboro Baptist Church picketed funerals for soldiers killed overseas, Illinois State Rep. Brandon Phelps, D-Norris City, has introduced legislation creating a “Let Them Rest in Peace” law that would essentially ban future protests at funerals. The bill would keep protesters 300 feet away from funerals and memorial services for 30 minutes before and after the ceremony, as well as during the ceremony.

Picketed funerals of service men and women is not unique to Kansas – at least six funerals for Illinois soldiers have been picketed, Lt. Gov. Pat Quinn said. Funerals have also been picketed in Indiana, including one incident where a sign read “Thank God for dead soldiers.”

These protests are led by religious zealots who believe soldiers are being punished for believing that homosexuality is acceptable. Soldiers “have been raised on a big lie that being gay is OK,” said Shirley Phelps-Roper, a church attorney and daughter of the catalyst of the protests.

The notion that protesting the funeral of a soldier is one many should be unable to stomach, and something that we at the Daily Illini do not condone. However, the First Amendment protects a right to free speech, and if people choose to protest a funeral they should be afforded that right.

It also does not help that this law is not completely thought out. For example, this bill only limits loud or visually offensive protests to 300 feet away from the ceremony or the entrance of any location hosting the ceremony. However, at 301 feet, there is no language limiting protest. Essentially, a protest can occur in the north end zone of Memorial Stadium while a funeral is taking place in the south end zone, meaning families will still be able to see and hear the protest, negating any effect the bill may have.

This bill, if passed, would likely be subjected to judicial strict scrutiny, a legal test that has struck down several laws because they were not “narrowly tailored to promote a compelling governmental interest.” The question is if the well being of the family of a fallen soldier is a compelling governmental interest. Richard Fallon, a professor of constitutional law at Harvard University said in the Tribune article that this is a distinct possibility: “If this speech was specifically designed to exacerbate wounds, that could be the key.”

Quinn said this is exactly what the law protects against. However, the right to free speech should always trump the needs of one individual or group. Families should indeed be permitted to have quiet funerals for their loved ones, but there are ways to do this that do not require restrictions on free speech.

The premise of this law is innocent and pure, but also is a violation of free speech. Even something as appalling as the protesting of a fallen soldier’s funeral – those who died to protect the very right to do this – should be permissible by law.