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Matt Von Pinnon, Published May 23 2010

Von Pinnon: Should free speech live where we bury our dead?

If there is one time and place on earth that decency and decorum should rule, it’s at a funeral.

So what are we to do with hatemongers who assemble near cemeteries and places of worship with signs and shouts of “Good riddance,” “God hates you” and other despicable displays of free speech?

The Supreme Court has agreed to wade into these murky waters, and now North Dakota is one of 13 states that have joined the Kansas attorney general in supporting the argument that the right of free speech should be curtailed at or near funerals.

It’s a classic case of clashing U.S. rights and ideals. On one hand, there’s the right of the people to peaceably assemble (which most people do at a funeral). On the other hand, there’s the right of free speech. Both rights are part of the First Amendment.

I’ve been thinking about the facts and ramifications of this case for some time.

As sad and upsetting as it is that some people would disrupt a funeral or burial with deplorable speech, I worry about where restrictions on such speech may eventually lead.

After all, it can always be argued that there is a more appropriate time and place to exercise free speech.

The case before the Supreme Court pits the family of Marine Lance Cpl. Matthew Snyder against Fred Phelps and his crazy Westboro Baptist Church of Topeka, Kan.

Snyder was killed in 2006 while serving in Iraq.

Phelps and his church, as they do all over the country and have done near here, used Snyder’s funeral and burial to picket and spread their messages of hate, focusing largely on what they see as comeuppance for U.S. society’s tolerance of gays.

Snyder’s family successfully sued Phelps and his church for intentional infliction of emotional distress and invasion of privacy.

Phelps, who was ordered to pay the family millions, appealed to the U.S. Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals, which reversed the lower court’s decision on grounds the church’s actions are protected by the First Amendment. The Snyder family was ordered to pay the church’s legal costs.

The Supreme Court will now review the case.

It may be that the church is guilty of harassment or invasion of privacy, which North Dakota Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem effectively argues in his statement accompanying news that the Peace Garden State was joining the fray:

“Everyone understands that the First Amendment guarantees the right to freedom of speech, but the Appellate Court ignored the fact that the First Amendment also guarantees other rights, including the right of grieving families to exercise their religious freedom and their right to peaceably assemble, unmolested by protesters whose only purpose is to deprive them of those freedoms.”

It’s hard to argue with that, but the high court also has to be careful to not erode the very important rights our soldiers have for centuries fought to protect – and paramount among those is freedom of speech.

The best way to combat free speech we don’t like is to use more speech that we do like. In that way, the minority of protesters is drowned out, and we honor our dead with what they fought gallantly to uphold.



Von Pinnon is editor of The Forum.

Reach him at (701) 241-5579 or mvonpinnon@forumcomm.com