Our Opinion: Sensible court ruling balances rights
Thursday, March 13, 2014
Common sense prevails.
A federal judge on Monday upheld a Missouri law that limits where and when protests may be conducted at funeral sites.
The ruling by U.S. District Judge Fernando Gaitan Jr. resolves a legal battle that has lasted nearly eight years.
The Missouri law was a response to protests conducted at military funerals by members of the Westboro Baptist Church, Topeka, Kan. Protesters contend the military deaths are God’s punishment for acceptance of homosexuality in the United States.
Protesters cited their First Amendment right to free speech and challenged the Missouri law as an infringement of that constitutional provision.
As journalists, we cherish free speech and abhor censorship. We also recognize, however, that free speech is not absolute.
Perhaps the most well-known example is “you can’t yell fire in a crowded theater.” The quote actually paraphrases language in a 1919 U.S. Supreme Court ruling written by Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr.
Other restrictions involve libel, slander and threats. Mention explosives while standing in line at airport security and you are likely to miss the flight.
The question before the court was whether the parameters contained in Missouri’s law unconstitutionally restrict free speech.
Ultimately, the court upheld the law. We agree with the decision.
The protesters retain the right to speak, but the law restricts where and when they may do so. Protesters must respect a 300-foot buffer around funeral sites during a period that extends from one hour before the funeral begins until one hour after it ends.
The law and the court ruling strike a balance between two rights — the protesters’ right to speak and the families’ right to privacy during a solemn occasion.
We also must note these protests occur during the funerals of military personnel who died protecting the rights invoked by the protesters. Viewed from that perspective, the protests ironically memorialize the sacrifice of our service men and women.
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