On Monday, President Obama signed the Honoring America’s Veterans and Caring for Camp Lejeune Families Act of 2012 into law. Among other things, the law puts specific restrictions into place for protestors at military funerals. From Huffington Post:
The new law will have strong implications for the Westboro Baptist Church, a Kansas-based organization…Westboro Baptist Church has drawn media attention for its brand of protest, which frequently links the deaths of soldiers to America’s growing acceptance of gays.
Under the new legislation, protests must be held at least 300 feet from military funerals and are prohibited two hours before or after a service. The law counters a 2011 Supreme Court ruling, which found that displays such as Westboro’s were protected under the First Amendment.
Jazz Shaw wrote about this over the weekend, and I agree with him that it’s mostly unconstitutional pandering instead of actual veteran-positive legislation:
Given how these cretins are pretty much universally despised, many of us might find this a bit of good cheer during the dog days of summer. Unfortunately, the legislation seems to have one major flaw…Dr. James Joyner weighs in, describing the bill as little more than pandering and an unfortunate incursion on first amendment rights.
Look, I hate these Westboro dirtbags as much as the next guy. Their message is vile and their targets innocent. But the Supreme Court has ruled that picketing funerals is protected by the First Amendment. It was an 8-1 ruling, with only Justice Alito dissenting.
While the 300 foot buffer zone is certainly permissible—indeed, the Westboro cretins observed a 1000 foot buffer in the case decided by the Supreme Court—the two hour window is almost surely not. So say that you can’t picket near a funeral while said funeral is going on is effectively ban it. And the Supreme Court has already said that the activity is protected by the Constitution.
I hate to say it, but this certainly does smell of pandering. There’s no easier path to public praise for politicians than to do something to support our military and veterans. (And rightly so.) But there’s a difference between doing something substantive to help them and just passing a bill which you know will get shot down just so you can look like you’re being tough on the protesters. If the government can regulate speech to the point where they can prevent you from showing up two hours before until two hours after an event, that would be a precedent which could very quickly get out of control.
In debating this with a buddy on Facebook last night, he brought up the point that the funerals are at least partially funded by the federal government, so why can’t the federal government dictate who can and cannot be near or at the funerals? While I think that’s a good discussion point, and one I hadn’t considered prior to the discussion, the First Amendment still applies here – and while these scumbags really are “cruisin’ for a bruisin’,” they are also still American citizens not calling for violence against their fellow human beings. As such, their First Amendment rights should be intact — local zoning laws notwithstanding, which is where such laws should be promulgated anyway.
As a side note, to take off from Jazz’s point, this part of the law really does seem mostly about pandering. One of the most frustrating things about working for Congress was how much self-praise went on in press releases and the like when authorizing military spending to provide pay, benefits, etc. for the troops. Nowhere else do people want credit for providing basic financial necessities (previously agreed upon, no less) to people who provide a service – you don’t see restaurant managers boasting about providing paychecks every week to employees, for example. They just provide the paycheck as recompense for work provided.
If Congress really wants to do some good for the American people, it could decide to actually run a war effectively, unlike what happened in Iraq and Afghanistan. Or it could take better care of our veterans through more funding and more effectively used funding, since many are coming back with PTSD, and suicide rates are at record-high levels. Also, large numbers of veterans are homeless, especially younger veterans, which is just terrible. Or it could simply decide not to sacrifice the troops in wars promoted purely for political purposes (such as Obama’s infusion of troops into Afghanistan, which I do believe was done to balance out criticisms from his left and right flanks).
This law does provide a series of expanded benefits to veterans, so Congress deserves credit for that, but by adding the section about protests it not only oversteps its boundaries but puts a dangerous precedent in place for protests.
Note: I spent eight years in the Army Reserves and National Guard, but never went overseas. As such, my opinion on this whole situation definitely lacks first-hand experience, especially since I have lost only one friend to service overseas and no protests were seen at his funeral. I decided to ask my friend Jeff Nader,a ten-year Army veteran who served one tour in Iraq and currently works as an air traffic controller at Otis Coast Guard Base on Cape Cod, his opinion on the law and its potential implications:
I think the timing of this law is suspicious, what with an election coming up. I think Obama and Congress are indeed pandering, and Obama especially because he wants support from people right-of-center. These are the people who typically pride themselves on being exceedingly pro-military. This gives him pro-military credentials in November.
I also think it could violate First Amendment rights.
I give the Westboro crowd credit, though – their legal people have correctly analyzed and followed the applicable laws. While some will always abuse freedoms, targeting small groups in ways that could eventually impact everyone is something we should be cautious of.