Monday, February 13, 2006

Hateful Speech Equals Bad Law?

One has to be pretty low on the human food chain to think protesting a funeral service is a good idea. Particularly when it's done to push an extremist Bible-thumping agenda that would even make Pat Robertson blush. That's exactly what the asshats from the Westboro Baptist Church have been doing for years now. What started out as protests at the funerals of AIDS victims (remember the mouth breathers with the "God Hates Fags" signs? That's them) has now morphed into protests at funerals for service members killed in Iraq:

It was a typical scenario for the Westboro Baptist Church. Another demonstration outside the funeral of a soldier killed in Iraq. This time the venue was Meadowood Baptist Church in Midwest City, Okla., noted a full rundown of the event recorded later by church members on their Web site.

The signs held by members that Feb. 2 were dutifully noted on the church's web-journal: 'Steve held 'Thank God for Dead Soldiers,' 'You're Going to Hell' and 'Fags Doom Nations' while Shirl held 'America is Doomed,' 'God is America's Terror' and 'Don't Worship the Dead' with a flag tied around her waist.'

They recently appeared at memorial services for miners killed in two recent disasters in West Virginia. The mine accidents, they bellowed, were punishment from God for the state's sinful ways.

As you might expect, some people are pissed off at this activity. But does that anger translate to good law? The West Virginia House of Delegates last week overwhelmingly passed a bill that would limit the places where such protests could take place:
Delegates voted 96-1 to send the bill (HB4306) to the Senate for consideration.
It bars protesters at funerals and memorial services who disturb the peace from
coming closer than 500 feet to such a service and makes that a felony.
The one dissenting vote came from Republican Charles Trump, the House Minority Leader. Is he a supporter of the Westboro idiots? No, but he has concerns about a law directed at the suppression of speech, even incredibly hateful speech. I applaud his concern and his vote - it takes balls to stand in front of a piece of legislation moving so fast as to flatten anyone in its path in the name of a broader and farther reaching principle.

Compare that with the opinion of Democratt (and lawyer) Lidella Hrutkay, who was "not concerned about whether the bill is constitutional" because "somewhere down the road someone'’s going to challenge it and we'’ll let the courts do their job." Wait a second - don't legislators take the same oath to uphold the Constitution that judges do? If there is a possibility that a law might be unconstitutional, shouldn't that concernern a legislator? Maybe, after investigation, she concludes that the law is in fact constitutional and therefore supports it. Fine, but "punt to the courts" should not be an option in situations like this.

I'm reminded of when I heard a lecture by ACLU president Nadine Strossen while I was in law school. They were fighting the Communications Decency Act in court at the time. She told of trying to sway Congressmen to vote against the Act arguing that it violated the First Amendment (as the Supreme Court later held that it did). She got no takers, with one Congresscritter actually telling her that a "no" vote would be dangerous politically and that the Supreme Court would clean up the mess down the road.

What's the point of this (ever expanding) screed? The Westboro folks are assholes, plain and simple. And maybe the new WV law is a proper time, place, and manner restriction that will pass First Amendment muster. But that issue should be hashed out now, before anyone has to challenge it in the courts. Not every problem can be, or should be, solved by passing a new law.

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