Beliefs Politics

Did Gov. Bobby Jindal censor Westboro Baptist’s free speech?

(RNS1-OCT06) Protesters from Fred Phelps' Westboro Baptist Church in Topeka, Kansas rallied outside the U.S. Supreme Court as justices debated how far Phelps' free speech rights go. For use with RNS-PHELPS-SCOTUS and RNS-PHELPS-SCENE, transmitted Oct. 6, 2010. RNS photo
(RNS1-OCT06) Protesters from Fred Phelps' Westboro Baptist Church in Topeka, Kansas rallied outside the U.S. Supreme Court as justices debated how far Phelps' free speech rights go. For use with RNS-PHELPS-SCOTUS and RNS-PHELPS-SCENE, transmitted Oct. 6, 2010. RNS photo by Jena Lowe.

(RNS1-OCT06) Protesters from Fred Phelps’ Westboro Baptist Church in Topeka, Kan., rallied outside the U.S. Supreme Court as justices debated how far Phelps’ free speech rights go. For use with RNS-PHELPS-SCOTUS and RNS-PHELPS-SCENE, transmitted Oct. 6, 2010. RNS photo by Jena Lowe

(RNS) Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal issued an executive order barring Westboro Baptist Church protesters from the Monday (July 27) funerals of Lafayette shooting victims.

The shooter, John Russell Houser, killed two and wounded nine at the Grand 16 movie theater on July 23.

Houser had praised the Topeka, Kan.-based Westboro Baptist Church in a comment online, and church leader Benjamin Phelps said “God sent the shooter,” in a YouTube video in response to Jindal’s order. The church is known for its “God hates fags” website (which says God is punishing America) and its picketing at the funerals of U.S. service members. Though the church threatened on Twitter to protest at the two Lafayette victims’ funerals, the group ultimately didn’t show.

But the ordeal raises a question: If Westboro members had protested, would their picketing be protected as free speech? And, if so, did Jindal’s executive order infringe on the church’s First Amendment rights? Some experts suggest that the law is unclear.


READ: 5 faith facts about Bobby Jindal


This isn’t the first time the controversial church has raised questions about freedom of speech. After Westboro Baptist Church protested the funeral of Lance Cpl. Matthew Snyder, who died serving in the Marines in Iraq in 2006, his father, Albert Snyder, sued the church and former pastor, Fred Phelps, who died last year, for emotional distress, among other things, in 2011.

Though a jury in the U.S. District Court for the District of Maryland ruled that Snyder should receive damages, the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals later reversed the judgment, a decision that was ultimately upheld by the Supreme Court in Snyder v. Phelps.

Vanderbilt University Law School professor and First Amendment expert David Hudson Jr. noted that Chief Justice John Roberts made an important point during the case: “Speech is often provocative and the First Amendment protects a great deal of disagreeable and even repugnant speech.”

“That’s a good precedent for Westboro Baptist Church,” Hudson said in an interview.


READ: Fred Phelps, Westboro Baptist Church founder, dies: A legacy of isolation


That said, Louisiana is one of 44 states with laws restricting funeral picketing, many of which were created directly in response to Westboro Baptist Church, Hudson said. So technically, Jindal’s executive order called on the police to enforce an existing state law. The law says that protesters must be 300 feet away from a funeral and they cannot disrupt it; they can protest only until two hours before a funeral starts and two hours after it ends.

So, the executive order would seem to just reinforce state law. But it may be problematic for two reasons:

According to Marjorie Esman, executive director of the ACLU Foundation of Louisiana, Jindal selectively applied the funeral-picketing law. By issuing an executive order telling police to enforce the law specifically against the Westboro Baptist Church, she argued, Jindal singled out the group.

“What the governor did is essentially say, ‘We don’t like this religion and we’re not going to allow them’ and that is in total violation of the First Amendment,” Esman said.


READ: Westboro Baptist Church to picket Beau Biden’s funeral, rosary prayers


The second issue is that there’s debate over whether state funeral-picketing laws are constitutional.

On one hand, there are compelling reasons for the laws. Funeral-picketing laws are, in essence, “not unreasonable,” Esman said. “The law exists to protect, really, both sides — the participants in the funeral and the protesters.”

But courts are not so sure. In Snyder v. Phelps, the Supreme Court specifically stated that it was not ruling on the constitutionality of funeral-picketing laws, but “the federal courts are actually split,” Hudson said.

“The Westboro Baptists could probably challenge the constitutionality of that law — and they may or may not be successful.”

LM/MG END WEISSMAN

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Sara Weissman

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  • The Westboro church should be banned from all funerals. It is not the place for any type of protest.

  • Unless they infringe on other people’s rights, they have a right to peaceable protest. Few agree with them, many are offended by them, but nobody is harmed by them. Free speech isn’t just speech you agree with.

  • I am all about free speech, and I fully understand their right to a peaceable protest. But there is a point where tolerance is wrong. If they were protesting my childs funeral, I don’t think anyone could hold me back, and then I would be the one in jail for their provocation. Free speech is already limited. I can’t say to someone I am going to kill you. I can’t say in an airport I have a bomb. I can’t say something that is defamatory or libelous that harms another person. A family’s right to have a peaceable ceremony for their deceased without interruption is not trumped by some groups overzealous posturing. Protesting a funeral is an example that should be be criminalized…take your protest somewhere else and allow the family to grieve…you know, the way your family was able to grieve when Fred passed away. The fact that it is not yet a crime to protest a funeral does not make it right.

  • You are over worshipping the idea of free speech. Protesting at a person’s funeral is not what the Founding Fathers had in mind. A funeral is a private ceremony held to comfort a grieving family. Protestors should be allowed only outside a 10 mile radius of the service. No human being should be exposed to this type of behavior. The Constitution is not a sacred document…..common sense needs to be applied when interpreting it. Crazies need to bee contained.

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