Federal court upholds Nebraska funeral picketing law challenged by Westboro Baptist Church

World Herald, Nebraska/March 24, 2016

By Paul Hammel

Lincoln — A federal judge has upheld Nebraska’s funeral picketing law, ruling that it has not violated the free-speech rights of the Westboro Baptist Church, which has raised controversy by protesting at the services of fallen U.S. soldiers around the country.
An appeal of the ruling was promised.

U.S. District Judge Laurie Smith Camp issued the ruling Tuesday, more than a year after a trial on the Topeka, Kansas, church’s challenge of the law.

The law prohibits protests within 500 feet of a funeral service, starting one hour before the rites begin and ending two hours after.

Passed in 2006 and amended in 2011, the law was a response to picketing by church members at the funerals of U.S. soldiers.

Westboro members condemn homosexuality and say the deaths of U.S. soldiers are the result of God’s wrath over America’s tolerance of homosexuality.

Carrying large posters bearing messages such as “God Hates Fags” and “Thank God for IEDs” (improvised explosive devices), the church members have picketed more than 550 funerals nationwide and have regularly gone to court to challenge restrictions on their protests.
They filed their Nebraska lawsuit in 2009. They cited at least three protests in Nebraska, including a 2010 soldier’s funeral in Omaha during which a counter-protester was convicted of spraying bear repellent into a crowd of people.

Camp ruled Tuesday that Nebraska’s law did not restrict free speech “more than necessary” and that protesters had “ample alternative channels” to communicate their message, including via social media and news coverage of their demonstrations.

“The First Amendment does not guarantee the right to communicate one’s views at all times and places or in any manner that may be desired,” the judge said, quoting from a 1981 U.S. Supreme Court opinion.

The Nebraska Attorney General’s Office had defended the constitutionality of Nebraska’s law, arguing that the state had a substantial interest in “protecting the peace and privacy of funeral attendees so that they may express the respect accorded to the deceased.”
The state law initially banned protests within 300 feet of a funeral.

But after it was struck down in court, the law was amended in 2011 and the ban was extended to 500 feet.

Margie Phelps, a church member and the attorney who filed the church’s lawsuit, said Tuesday’s ruling would be appealed. She said it was a necessary step to get the case before the U.S. Supreme Court, so that the justices can “put some restraints on out-of-control legislators who think they can silence words they swore to protect.”

In the lawsuit, church members argued that the Omaha police force, during a funeral in October 2011, selectively enforced the picketing law against them and not against a military veterans’ motorcycle group that provided a funeral escort.
They also claimed that police allowed counter-protesters to block Westboro’s message by waving flags and chanting, “USA! USA!”

But Camp ruled that police are not obliged to regulate the speech of others to ensure that Westboro’s method of protest is “effective.”

She said she did not find a pattern of “unlawful favoritism” against church members. And she noted that the church sent a thank-you note to Omaha police for its management of the 2011 protest.

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