Federal judge finds Missouri funeral protest bans unconstitutional

[JURIST] A judge for the US District Court for the Western District of Missouri [official website] on Monday ruled [opinion] that Missouri laws restricting protests near funerals are unconstitutional. Judge Fernando Gaitan held that two 2006 laws banning protests at funerals violated the US Constitution's First Amendment [text] right to free speech. The court concluded that prosecutors failed to show how restrictions on protests were narrowly tailored to serve a significant government interest of preventing interruptions at funeral services. Gaitan noted that the US Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit [official website] had previously rejected [JURIST report] the argument. In 2006, the Missouri General Assembly [official website] passed two laws in response to protests at military funerals [JURIST news archive] by the Westboro Baptist Church [WARNING: readers may find material at this church website offensive; JURIST news archive]. The laws banned protests within 300 feet of any funeral location [578.502 text] and within one hour prior to and one hour after the services [578.501 text]. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) [advocacy website] filed the suit on behalf of Westboro church member Shirley Phelps-Roper. Last year, the US Supreme Court [official website, JURIST news archive] denied certiorari [order, PDF] in the case, without comment. The authorites were barred [JURIST report] from enforcing the protest restrictions while the lawsuit was pending. Missouri Attorney General Chris Koster [official website] plans to appeal the latest ruling.

In June, 48 states and the District of Columbia filed an amicus curiae brief [text] supporting the right to limit protests around military funerals [JURIST report] in the separate case of Snyder v. Phelps [docket]. The Supreme Court granted certiorari [cert. petition, PDF; JURIST report] in the case to determine if the First Amendment right to freedom of speech can be limited in specific situations. The suit was brought [JURIST report] by the family of Marine Lance Corporal Matthew Snyder after Reverend Fred Phelps and members of his Westboro Baptist Church picketed his funeral. Phelps and members of his church have been traveling around the country picketing military funerals in recent years, claiming US soldiers have been killed because America tolerates homosexuals. A federal judge awarded the family [JURIST report] almost $11 million in damages, but the US Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit reversed, holding that Phelps's speech was protected under the First Amendment.

 

About Paper Chase

Paper Chase is JURIST's real-time legal news service, powered by a team of 30 law student reporters and editors led by law professor Bernard Hibbitts at the University of Pittsburgh School of Law. As an educational service, Paper Chase is dedicated to presenting important legal news and materials rapidly, objectively and intelligibly in an accessible format.

© Copyright JURIST Legal News and Research Services, Inc., 2013.