Our Opinion: When is free speech hate?

Monday, March 6, 2006

The Veterans Affairs Committee of the Iowa Legislature passed HF 2132, a measure to restrict disorderly conduct near a military funeral or memorial service.

Rep. Dan Huseman reports in his newsletter that this bill restricts disorderly conduct within 300 feet of a building or other location where a military funeral or memorial service is being conducted, or within 300 feet of a military funeral procession Specifically, HF 2132 prohibits loud or raucous noise which causes unreasonable distress to people attending the funeral, direct abusive epithets, or making any threatening gestures which the person knows is likely to provoke a violent reaction by another or disturb or disrupt the funeral. The restriction applies to 30 minutes before, during, and 30 minutes after the service. A person who breaks the law commits a violation of a simple misdemeanor on the first offense, a serious misdemeanor for the second offense, and a class "D" felony for a third or subsequent offense.

This law is in response to the activities of demonstrators from Westboro Baptist Church in Topeka, Kan., and the Rev. Fred Phelps. Phelps and his followers blame American tolerance of homosexuality for the Sept. 11 attacks and the resulting U.S. military casualties in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Kansas already has a similar law on the books. Indiana, Illinois and Wisconsin are also considering similar measures, called "rest in peace" statutes.

Members of the Westboro Baptist Church have protested at funerals of Iowa servicemen and we often received faxes from the group when servicemen are killed in the line of duty. They are especially fond of improvised explosive devices (IEDs), which they see as manifestations of God's wrath against our country.

There is no honor in protesting homosexuality at the funeral of a serviceman who has paid the ultimate price to purchase the freedom of the people who are protesting before, during and after the funeral. It is one of the cruelest expressions of freedom we can imagine.

Is the law necessary? As long as servicemen continue to die in Iraq and Afghanistan, it looks as if it is needed. Will the courts uphold the measure? That's the rub. Will privacy, on the ropes lately, win out over freedom of speech and freedom of religion?

This bill's heart is in the right place, we just wish it wasn't necessary.