Our opinion: First Amendment right to free speech not absolute

Thursday October 18, 2012

It is often assumed that the First Amendment right to free speech is absolute and the individual or group exercising this right bears no responsibility for their actions and cannot be restrained in any way. Any number of court decisions over the decades have said otherwise, however, most recently one involving the Westboro Baptist Church, one of the more reprehensible abusers of that right.

The Topeka-based group, which has earned notoriety by celebrating the deaths of American soldiers at their funerals, gained notice locally this summer when it threatened to show up at the funeral of Pfc. Michael DeMarsico of North Adams, who was killed in Afghanistan. The church believes that God hates the United States because of its tolerance of gays and abortion, among other perceived sins, and welcomes the deaths of soldiers in defense of the country. Happily, the hate-mongers did not make good on their threat to come to the Berkshires.

The town of Manchester, Mo. was not so lucky a year ago, and it attempted to block the group from disrupting the funeral of a local soldier through passage of a city ordinance preventing protesters from getting within 300 feet of a burial service while it is occurring and for one hour before and one hour after. A three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit ruled that the ordinance violated the free speech rights of the church, but upon appeal, the court reversed its ruling on Tuesday.

Relying upon legal precedent, Eighth Circuit Judge Diana Murphy wrote that the Manchester ordinance did not violate the First Amendment because "it is narrowly tailored, and it leaves open ample alternative channels for communication." The ordinance was careful not to ban protest activities but confined them to a specific location and time frame. Judge Murphy also wrote that the ordinance survived judicial scrutiny because "it serves a significant government interest," and assuring that the services for soldiers who died in the line of fire are not cruelly disrupted is certainly a significant interest.

The Westboro church isn't going away, but the ruling offers hope for communities plagued by its behavior. It also serves as a reminder that those who would abuse the rights granted by our Constitution can't necessarily hide behind the Constitution.


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