June 8, 2007

Group Enters Case to Protect Freedom of Speech

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
CONTACT: media@aclu.org

BELLEVUE, NE — ACLU Nebraska announced today it will represent Shirley L. Phelps-Roper, a member of a controversial conservative Christian church, who has been criminally charged under a state law that prohibits flag desecration.

“Free speech and the right to protest extends to all Americans, even when the message is very unpopular and upsetting,” said Laurel Marsh, Executive Director of ACLU Nebraska. “This is the essence of the First Amendment.”

Phelps-Roper was arrested when she and other members of her church were conducting a protest outside the funeral of a soldier who died in the Iraq War.

Phelps-Roper is a member of the Westboro Baptist Church. Its members believe that homosexuality is an abomination — they believe that God is punishing America for the sin of homosexuality by killing American soldiers. During the most recent protest in Bellevue, Phelps-Roper was arrested after she draped an American flag around her waist and her son stood on the flag.

The Nebraska flag desecration law was enacted in the late 1970s, prior to the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling that declared flag burning protected by the First Amendment. According to the Nebraska law: “A person commits the offense of mutilating a flag if such person intentionally casts contempt or ridicule upon a flag by mutilating, defacing, defiling, burning, or trampling upon such flag.”

“The Nebraska law is simply a dead letter law that should not be on the books anymore,” said Amy Miller, Legal Director of ACLU Nebraska. “The Supreme Court has ruled in three separate cases involving so-called flag desecration charges, and each time has found that protestors may use the flag as part of their message.”

“Clearly, the ACLU disagrees with the Westboro Baptist Church’s message that gay people are an abomination,” said Miller. “The ACLU spends a significant amount of time working for equality on the basis of sexual orientation and I myself am gay. But disagreeing with the message doesn’t mean that we can allow the government to try to silence protected free speech. Punishing this use of the flag is contrary to the very spirit of freedom the flag stands for.”

The criminal charges are scheduled for first hearing on July 11 in Sarpy County Court. ACLU Nebraska will be preparing legal documents to submit to the court which outline how Phelps-Roper’s conduct was legal and protected by the First Amendment. As with all of their cases, the ACLU is representing Phelps-Roper free of charge.

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