ACLU of Kentucky Says Protest Ban at Funerals Restricts Free Speech
FRANKFORT, KY -- The American Civil Liberties Union of Kentucky filed a federal lawsuit today challenging restrictions on freedom of speech and expression in two bills passed during the 2006 session of the Kentucky General Assembly.
The new Kentucky laws create restrictions near funerals, wakes, memorial services and burials, which, the ACLU argues in the court papers, prohibit non-disruptive, non-disorderly speech and visual displays.
"We cannot prohibit free expression because we don't like certain activities, nor can we suppress the speech of groups or individuals simply because we find their message distasteful," said Lili S. Lutgens, ACLU of Kentucky staff attorney. "The First Amendment applies to everyone."
House Bill 333 and Senate Bill 93, which were signed into law by Gov. Ernie Fletcher on March 27, are aimed at members of the Westboro Baptist Church in Topeka, Kansas. The church group protests at the funerals of military members, gays and people who have died from AIDS, claiming that God is punishing the United States for supporting homosexuality.
The ACLU lawsuit recognizes that Kentucky has an interest in showing respect and compassion for the deceased and for their families, but argues that sections of these laws go too far in prohibiting peaceful protests.
According to the ACLU brief, the new laws are so broad that they could make it a crime to whistle while walking down the street within earshot of a funeral or to stop for a conversation on a public sidewalk adjacent to a funeral home or place of worship while a funeral service is in progress. The laws may even prevent groups like the Patriot Guard Riders, a group of pro-military bikers, from being close enough to support the families of soldiers who have died in Iraq during military funeral protests.
The ACLU filed the lawsuit on behalf of Mercer County resident Bart McQueary, who has protested with members of the Kansas group on three occasions over the last few years. McQueary wishes to peacefully protest with the group in the future.
“Mr. McQueary clearly has the right to express his message in a non-disruptive manner, even if others disagree with him,” said Lutgens. “That’s what the First Amendment is all about.”
The new laws ban peaceful protests within 300 feet of a funeral, and would restrict McQueary and others from making sounds, displaying signs or distributing literature in a non-disruptive manner without approval from the family of the deceased or from the person conducting the service.
Because McQueary now fears prosecution, Lutgens said he’s unable to express his opinion.
A copy of the complaint is online at: www.aclu.org/freespeech/protest/25439lgl20060502.html