Tuesday, January 24, 2006

The Gag Me State?

Missouri should really change its nickname from the Show Me State to Gag Me State. The Missouri State Senate passed legislation on Tuesday that would restrict protests at funerals. The legislation was a direct response to a Kansas group that targets and protests at military funerals. Fueled in part, no doubt, by good intentions toward the families who have lost loved ones in the Iraq quagmire (there, Mr. P, I’ve used that dirty liberal term for the conflict), this legislative action reeks of First Amendment violations.

It falls into the “freedom of speech is only good as long as we like what you’re saying” category of policy- and law-making. The Spc. Edward Lee Myers' Law treads the thin line between what is lawful and what our delicate cultural sensibilities find to be acceptable. The American Civil Liberties Union gets a lot of flak for defending the former while standing up to those who favor the latter.

Should people be allowed to protest at funerals? Should they be allowed to interrupt this sad, private event?

Don’t look at me! I don’t know. I’m just asking!

I wonder what really initiated this legislative move. Was it respect for the deceased and their grieving families? Was it the sanctity of this final rite of passage into the great beyond? Or was it something broader, something more political in nature that sparked this sanction?

After all, the legislation seems to be primarily motivated by protests at the funerals of military personnel who died fighting a very controversial war. Emotions are running high, and patriotism – even the blind kind – seems to be the most praised value by many politicians and certainly by the current administration. From putting peace activists on the TSA no-fly lists to indiscriminately arresting protesters at anti-war rallies, the powers-that-be have made it clear that speaking out against the war in Iraq can have dire consequences for the conscientious objectors.

So, could this law be just another gag order? And if it is, what does this say about our civil liberties? Are we allowing them to be suspended, sanctioned, outright dismissed when they create embarrassments and difficulties for those holding political power?

Oh, yeah, there is another fact I forgot to mention. You remember that Kansas group I mentioned earlier, the one that gave impetus to this legislation? Well, the group is actually the Topeka-based Westboro Baptist Church, and it believes that the military deaths in Iraq are a punishment from god for homosexuality in our country. Quoted in a Fort Wayne newspaper, the leader of the group said, “"We picket all the funerals of the soldiers God sent home in his vengeance and wrath.” In addition to protesting at soldiers’ funerals around the country, the church group also protests at other events, such as the Fort Wayne performance of “The Laramie Project,” a play about Matthew Shepherd, a gay college student beaten to death in a hate crime in 1998.

Huh. It looks like this new Missouri legislation may be taking a stab at curbing hate speech. But what is hate speech? Who defines it? After all, what is hate speech to me may not be hate speech to you.

But I digress.

What interests me more here is the following: does it matter who is protesting at funerals and why? Did you feel differently about the issue considering the case of anti-war protests versus the case of anti-homosexuality protests? Should the law discern between the two, and if so, why?

But wait! The First Amendment did not say that Congress shall make no laws abridging the freedom of speech except when certain people were offended.

So where does this conundrum leave us? If a state can pass an anti-protest law in response to one (albeit very ignorant and hateful) group today, would another state pass an anti-protest law in response to another group tomorrow? And then another? And another?

And when does it stop?

As I said, I don’t know. I’m just asking.