A recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling will not alter St. Charles County’s defense of its law restricting protests at funerals, said a St. Charles County official.
In fact, the decision handed down Wednesday may bolster the county’s case, said Assistant County Counselor Robert Hoeynck.
The Supreme Court ruled 8-1 in favor of Westboro Baptist Church, upholding a lower court decision that shields Westboro Baptist Church from liability for its protests.
Albert Snyder, the father of Matthew Snyder, a Marine killed in Iraq, sued the church after members picketed his son’s funeral for intentionally inflicting emotional distress. A lower court had awarded Snyder $5 million.
The St. Charles County ordinance being challenged by Westboro Baptist Church members bans picketing within 300 feet of a funeral for an hour before through an hour after the service.
Westboro Church members, who have picked at more than 5,000 soldiers’ funerals, say the law violates their First Amendment rights.
Hoeynck said the Snyder case is very different from the St. Charles County case in the 8th Circuit Court.
“But (the Supreme Court) did say that government could regulate the time, place and manner of the protests, which is what we’ve been saying all along,” Hoeynck said.
The Supreme Court decision reads, “Westboro’s choice of where and when to conduct its picketing is not beyond the government’s regulatory reach—it is subject to reasonable time, place, or manner restrictions.”
ACLU Attorney Tony Rothert said he sat in on the hearing, and the ACLU filed a friend of the court brief. ACLU attorneys, including Rothert, also are representing Westboro in the St. Charles County Case in federal court.
“The decision properly acknowledges that the Westboro Baptist protests did cause grief for the family, but it also says the response to that grief cannot be the abandonment of First Amendment principles,” Rothert said.
“The decision said their speech is entitled to ‘special protection under the First Amendment,’ and that’s (the Supreme Court’s) terms,” he said.
He acknowledged that the Supreme Court did seem to support some sort of government regulation of funeral protests.
“On the other hand, their analysis does undermine the argument that those attending the funeral are a captive audience,” Rothert said.
Part of Hoeynck’s argument was that family members could not avoid the protests because they must attend a loved one’s funeral.
An important part of the decision rested upon the Supreme Court’s decision that the church members were commenting on public issues, Rothert said.
Hoeynck said that only dissenting Justice Samuel Alito considered speech posted on the Internet as being part of the case. Other justices considered only the protest at the funeral as being part of the case.
Snyder sued the church after finding a poem criticizing the family for how they raised their son posted on Westboro’s Web site.
“As an attorney, you wonder how it would have turned out if it had been presented differently,” Hoeynck said.
The question seems to be how far away can government keep protesters from funerals and for how long
“Government’s got to get it right,” Hoeynck said. “They’re not going to tell us what they’ll accept. It’s got to be done consistently.”
He said the decision should be based on similar situations, but the Supreme Court has not ruled on protests at funerals before, he said.