There are other ways to thwart funeral protests

Freedom New Mexico

Many Americans oppose U.S. military aggression in Iraq and Afghanistan; some have taken to the streets in open protest. But do such protests cross a line when they interfere with the solemn funeral of a fallen soldier?

The Supreme Court has agreed to weigh in on the matter.

New Mexico residents fall on both sides of the issue regarding the propriety of our wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. But most have focused on the policy behind that involvement, not on the servicemen and women who have been sent to fight.

More than half a dozen men with close ties to eastern New Mexico have been killed in those campaigns, and they and their families have generally received the respect and gratitude they deserve from the public.

Some people haven’t been so lucky. A Missouri group calling itself the Westboro Baptist Church (most of its members are relatives of the “pastor,” Fred Phelps), have bounced around the country looking for attention by staging demonstration at valid churches and military funerals. They shout and hold placards denouncing homosexuals, Catholics, Jews and other groups. Westboro members preach that U.S. military deaths are God’s punishment for laws that protect the civil rights of homosexuals.

They held one such demonstration at the 2006 funeral of Marine Matthew Snyder at a Catholic church in Westminster, Md. They carried signs that stated, “Thank God for dead soldiers,” “God Hates the USA/Thank God for 9/11,” and other incendiary statements. The protest, and counterprotests, forced the funeral procession to change its route to the cemetery.

The group also posted a poem on its website accusing Matthew Snyder’s mother and father of being bad parents.

The father sued, claiming harassment and intentional infliction of emotional distress. He was awarded $11 million in a lower court, which was later reduced to $5 million. A federal appeals court, however, reversed the judgment. Westboro filed a claim against Snyder demanding $16,000 in court fees, which the court said Snyder must pay. He has refused.

The Westboro group’s tactics are distasteful, probably even to people who might agree with them. They are, however, criticisms of U.S. policy that must be protected under the First Amendment. Whether or not they have a right to target and harass innocent Americans during a time of their greatest grief is something with which the high court must wrestle. But any decision that restricts a group’s ability to harass others is dangerous, since people will be quick to declare any unpleasantness, or position contrary to their own, as harassment.

Past Supreme Court decisions repeatedly have noted that the First Amendment was designed specifically for this kind of situation. After all, there’s no need to protect speech when everyone agrees with what someone is saying. Dissent must be protected, and even valued, as a means of pressuring people to consider opposing views. And protesters have no obligation to be nice.

The First Amendment also gives groups like Westboro the right to assemble peaceably, although local law enforcement can restrict their movement and placement in the interest of public safety. Most cemeteries are private property, although Texas law demands open access to the public. Legislators might consider adjusting the law to let cemeteries better protect families from unwanted intruders at burial sites.

These are probably better ways to help soldiers’ families mourn in peace. The best way to lessen the likelihood of such nuisances, of course, would be to stop being so quick to launch questionable military campaigns.