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Lawmakers consider banning picketing at funerals

By Sascha Cordner

http://stream.publicbroadcasting.net/production/mp3/wfsu/local-wfsu-994411.mp3

Tallahassee, FL – It began as a bill to ensure the dignity of military funerals. But, now as Sascha Cordner reports, some lawmakers are seeing the new proposal to prohibit picketing at all funerals as an infringement of people's First Amendment rights.

With banners like "God hates fags" and "Thank God for dead soldiers," members of the Westboro Baptist Church protested the funeral of Matthew Snyder, a U.S. Marine who was killed in Iraq, back in 2006. His father sued the anti-gay protestors, but lost when the U-S Supreme Court ruled the protestors did nothing wrong. The Justices stated it was free speech and they did not protest within 100-feet of the funeral.

The decision, though, inspired Republican Representative Patrick Rooney Junior of Palm Beach Gardens to draft legislation that would prohibit people from picketing within 500-feet of military funerals. But, during the House Criminal Justice Committee, he changed the bill to include all funerals, not just the military's:

"Staff, and I think rightfully so said, it would be under less scrutiny if we just went to all funerals, and I was okay with that. For me, it's really not a regulation per say of people's first amendment rights. I look at this really as a safety issue and when you're dealing with a volatile emotional situation like a funeral, specifically if you're dealing somebody in the military or a child or something like that, you want to try to balance the rights of people to be able to protest that, whether we believe what they're saying is right or wrong, but also to ensure the safety of everybody involved, because again, of the highly emotional situations."

But, that did not sit well with Democratic Representative Dwight Bullard of Miami. He says the revised version could generate many lawsuits as it appears to violate people's first amendment rights:

"We're talking about the same rule would now apply to neighborhood drug dealers or other criminals. And, as sad as this may sound, the death of that person may be celebrated by the community, and so when that kind of all-encompassing thing happens, it really goes to stress the importance of why we value the first amendment."

As a 27-year military veteran, Republican Representative Rich Glorioso says he understands the importance of controlling protests at military funerals. But, he is worried about expanding the bill to include the public:

"We'd have to tread carefully on this one. It was really designed for the military funerals because of the Westboro Baptist church, there's nothing worse than seeing a sign saying we're glad your son is dead.' None of us want to see that when we have true heroes out there. So, thank you for bringing this forward, but I would ask you to take with a grain of salt there in opening it up."

Republican Representative Charles McBurney of Jacksonville supports the bill. He recently lost his father, an army veteran. McBurney says society has a legitimate interest in restricting "morally outrageous conduct," like someone celebrating the death of another person. He also takes issue with concerns about how the bill could violate the first amendment:

"I've been an attorney for 30 years. I'm a firm believer in the first amendment, but we all know there are restrictions: the fire in the theater example, the limitations on parade and lawful assembly. This legislation seeks to create a proper balance and prevent what I consider to be morally outrageous conduct."

And, Committee Chair Gayle Harrell of Port Saint Lucie says it does not actually stop protests from happening:

"It limits the distance and it does allow a protest and assembly at any time other than the hour before and hour after and limits the distance to 500 feet for any funeral, so people can protest in situations, they can assembly, we want to be particular careful in constructing this."

Harrell also wanted to talk about her personal beliefs regarding the bill itself:

"As a military wife, as the mother of a military child, someone who has served our country, and our son in law is still serving our country, and I think this is extremely important. It does open it up for every citizen to have the same right and I think that is a good thing. It prevents perhaps the constitutional challenge, and it does give all citizens the ability to hold a funeral, to mourn their dead, in peace and grace."

The bill passed in committee. But, some who voted in favor of the measure urged Representative Rooney to change it back to its original form, limiting it to military funerals, before it heads to its last stop, the House Judiciary Committee.