Saturday, March 18, 2006

MN legislature passes “protest at funeral” law; blogging titans react

I’ve not written about him before, but well-read denizens of the blogosphere probably know all about Fred Phelps, the egomaniacal nut job who takes his little loudmouthed flock around the country to hold demonstrations at the funerals of US military personnel killed in combat. Phelps, you see, thinks God is killing these soldiers because America isn’t stoning gays and lesbians to death in the public square. Frankly, to call him a nut job is an insult to nut jobs everywhere. I find absolutely nothing redeeming in this man, his stance on the subject, and most definitely not in his chosen method of making his point.


Like most people with an ounce of empathy and respect, I believe firmly that people should be allowed to bury their loved ones in peace. A funeral is no place for political grandstanding in any way. What Fred Phelps is doing by launching his little preening protests at these funerals isn’t sick, ladies & gentlemen, it’s evil. He is no better than the terrorist scum these military folks were fighting and, in my perfect world, he’d suffer the same fate the next time he brought a “God hates fags” sign to a cemetery.


Several communities have either been the victims of Phelps’ parade or decided they don’t want to be and have gone to the step of writing legislation to keep Phelps - or anyone else of like mind - from using funerals to protest things. The form of these laws is to generally prohibit protest or demonstration within a certain range of the funeral. Such is the form of the legislation passed by the MN legislature this week. This doesn’t surprise me. What does surprise me is the reaction to this law being passed by two of the blogosphere’s titans, both of whom are intimately familiar with MN and the politics thereof: Captain’s Quarters and Power Line. Both of these worthies are firmly against the passage of any such legislation. First up, Ed Morrissey at CQ:


The law carries a ninety-day jail sentence for anyone who intentionally disrupts a memorial service or funeral. It also bars protestors from any demonstrations at the houses of the families. All of these sound reasonable, but it represents a government restriction on speech and organizing that finds no parallel elsewhere in law. The Supreme Court just ruled similar restrictions on abortion clinic protests unconstitutional. As John Hinderaker noted earlier at Power Line, the urge to solve every dispute through legislation only creates a community less free to express itself and more bound by government restrictions. That hardly seems like an appropriate manner in which to honor our fallen heroes.

Hopefully our legislature will heed the words of a Gold Star mother and rethink their reaction to the disgusting provocations of Fred Phelps. In the end, Phelps is a bug, and we shouldn't make him important enough to merit the loss of our speech rights.
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Begging the Captain’s pardon, but the he’s incorrect on the recent Supreme Court ruling. The Court did not rule that restrictions on the abortion protests were unconstitutional. They ruled that the federal extortion and racketeering laws cannot be used to ban the protests. There’s a significant difference in saying you can’t ban something, period, and saying you can’t ban something by saying (insert argument here)”. The Court did not rule out banning abortion protests within a certain range of the clinics, only that protesting wasn’t extortion. The MN law does not say that Phelps or whoever may follow cannot protest whatever they want to protest. It just says they can’t do it within a certain range of a funeral. Again, respects to the Captain, but there are plenty of circumstances where my ability to protest something is restricted in certain physical locations. I can’t protest something politically within a certain distance of a polling location, for example. I most certainly can’t demonstrate in favor of a particular candidate. My speech isn’t being denied. My venue is, however, and it’s being restricted in deference to a greater community good as defined by the laws passed by our elected representatives. This MN law is no different.

As for his suggestion on how to handle it.... please. “Just ignore him and he’ll go away”? And who among us bears the cost of that methodology? The grieving families, that’s who. As a community, are we not allowed to draw a line around them and say to everyone - us included - that these people have paid a high enough price for our society today? Demonstrate, if you must, but leave these people in peace for the span of time they need to commemorate the life and passing of their fallen family. I mentioned earlier that I consider Phelps and his ilk no better than the terrorists we’re fighting. Simply ignoring them and hoping they’ll go away isn’t an appropriate response. Neither is it with those who would use someone else’s funeral as a soapbox.


Then there’s this from Power Line:


Now the Minnesota legislature is enacting legislation to limit demonstrations within a certain number of feet of a funeral.

This strikes me as one of many examples of our culture's obsession with legal remedies. As a lawyer, I suppose I shouldn't complain; but as a citizen, I think it's ridiculous. If a bunch of crazies show up waving signs at a funeral, the appropriate course is for an able-bodied man--there should be at least one at any funeral--to take a sign and break it over the ringleader's head.
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Just so I understand this correctly, let’s review: a lawyer is suggesting that the appropriate response to a protester is to manhandle the protester’s property (his sign) from him and then physically assault him with it. I’d pay for a ticket to see him, or any lawyer, argue that case in front of a judge. Personally, I’m all for his suggestion. Seriously! There was a time when that was considered not only appropriate, but the duty of the able-bodied men at such an event and I do, indeed, believe that we’d be better off today if it were still allowed. But the undeniable fact is that anyone performing such this appropriate response would likely be arrested on the spot and have no legal legs to stand on in court. Phelps, in fact, is probably praying constantly that someone does such a thing specifically so he can get into court and highlight his misbegotten hide.

The appropriate actions at a funeral are to not use it as a protest. Phelps doesn’t care to conform to what is clearly our societal norms. (Certain Democrats and Bush-hating factions aside.) Since our legal system has precluded physical confrontation as a response, what recourse is left to the grieving families? What recourse is left to us, as a community, if we are unwilling to simply sit back and let the Phelps’ of the world run roughshod over us?

We debate the issue and then we pass laws. That’s what civilized democracies do. In America we hold the freedom of speech in our highest regard and we should. But just as we don’t condone yelling “fire” in a crowded theater under the auspices of free speech, we have the right and the responsibility to curtail speech in certain places and times when we can’t rely on our citizen’s common courtesy to do it for us. Precisely done, I have no issue with laws like that passed in MN, and I’m surprised that true blogger giants such as these fine folks do.