The danger of silencing offensive speech

Wednesday, October 17, 2012
Charlie Butts (

A federal appeals court has ruled that a St. Louis suburb can enforce an ordinance designed to prevent the demonstrations of a small organization in Kansas that calls itself a church. But one attorney warns about the possible effects this rule could have on the Constitution.

The Manchester, Missouri, ordinance is directed at the Topeka-based Westboro Baptist Church. Mat Staver of Liberty Counsel tells OneNewsNow members have gained notoriety for conducting protests at the funerals of soldiers killed in action, claiming the deaths are God's punishment for America's immorality and tolerance of homosexuality and abortion.

Staver, Mat (Liberty Counsel)"What they do is absolutely offensive. Certainly it shocks the conscience," Staver recognizes. "On the other hand, you have this ordinance, and it's not going to be just simply limited in terms of the case law precedent to protest around funerals. It could also be protests around abortion clinics. It could be other kinds of protests as well that people do not want to see or hear."

The Constitution is designed to protect speech, he points out -- even when others disagree with it.

"I think we have the Constitution on the one hand, and we've got a local municipality trying to deal with a problematic situation that happens infrequently on the other hand, and that, I think, [can] erode the First Amendment," the attorney warns. "I think this particular case has the potential to ultimately eat away at our constitutional liberties."

California recently approved a law that prohibits demonstrators from protesting within 300 feet of a funeral site one hour before the funeral starts and one hour after it is over (see earlier story). Beginning in January, those who violate that law face fines up to $1,000 and six months in jail.

The American Civil Liberties Union represented Westboro member Shirley Phelps-Roper in the lawsuit and says a decision on an appeal will be made soon.

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