Civil Liberties

Free Speech Zones for Dead Troops: Westboro Nuts Inspire Federal Legislation

President Barack Obama signs legislation to restrict protests at military funerals. The rest of us will just have to manage.


If only they thought God hated posters.

Yesterday President Barack Obama signed the Honoring America's Veterans and Caring for Camp Lejeune Families Act of 2012. The act restricts protests at military funerals. Protestors may not come within 300 feet of a military funeral for two hours before or after the service (and one presumes, during).

Here's what Obama said while signing the bill:

"I am very pleased to be signing this bill into law. The graves of our veterans are hallowed ground. And obviously we all defend our Constitution and the First Amendment and free speech, but we also believe that when men and women die in the service of their country and are laid to rest, it should be done with the utmost honor and respect."

But of course, this law isn't for the benefit of the dead but for the sensibilities of the living people left behind.

The restrictions are obviously targeting Westboro Baptist Church and the Phelps family who constitutes its membership. The church won a Supreme Court decision in 2011 when the father of a dead soldier unsuccessfully sued the Phelps family for emotional distress over their protests. (which, if you are reading this site from your cave, revolve around how God is enjoying seeing everybody die and get sent into a pit of hellflame forever because of the gays. And the Jews. And every other religion. But also for general secularness.)

The Phelpses are not selective with their protests. They'll protest anything. They protest other churches. They protest plays, concerts and sports events. They protest celebrities. They pinged America's radar back in the '90s for picketing the funerals of gay men who died of AIDS to let everybody know the deceased were burning in hell. And while their protests shocked the sensibilities of many, it clearly didn't get the angry reactions that the Phelpses family must feed off in order to survive, and so they expanded the protests to include dead soldiers or really anything that might get them media attention.

But the president and Congress' protection applies only to military funerals. The rest of us will have to manage our own responses, which, evidence shows, we do just fine.  The Huffington Post has a slide show of students at Texas A&M creating a human wall to surround the church and conceal the existence of the protestors at a soldier's funeral. This has become modus operandi in dealing with the nutjob family's appearences.

Westboro is a carny freak sideshow, and you'd think the public would be getting tired of the coverage. The natural inclination is to blame the media for making a big deal out of their protests, but the media wouldn't do it if the public didn't get up in arms and yank out the fainting couches every time the Phelps family behaves like the Phelps family. If people ignored the family they would implode into nothingness, like Tinkerbell in reverse. Passing a federal law to manage the family's protests just elevates their attention.