Free speech and freedom at the funerals

Whenever we go to war, we wind up with fewer freedoms to protect.

I agree with Andy Davis and Andrew Borene’s Monday guest column, “Protests and Funeral Laws,” that the protests at funeral services organized by Fred Phelps and his followers are disgusting. But I take strong exception to the claim that anti-war groups have staged similar demonstrations.

To the best of my knowledge, there never has been an anti-war protest at the funeral of a slain U.S. soldier. Phelps’ group members are right-wing religious fanatics and have no association with the broader anti-war movement. It is obvious that Borene and Davis desperately needed a “left” example of a funeral protest to balance to the “right” example of Phelps and his gang, so they made one up. This accusation is false, and a vicious slander against people opposed to the war on Iraq. I insist that Davis and Borene provide us with evidence to the contrary. If they cannot, then they should publish an apology and a retraction.

But worse than the phony charges against peace activists is the proposed solution to this “problem”: banning demonstrations. Any nonprivate cemetery is, by definition, a public space. As offensive as Phelps’ protests are, they are nonetheless protected by the Constitution. If we are to start banning “offensive” speech at public places – even at funerals – what’s next? Pickets at parades? Athletes for raising their fists during the National Anthem? Detain people for wearing the “wrong” T-shirt in public? (That’s already happened to anti-war activist Cindy Sheehan and others.)

I’d like to address DFLers like Borene who are thumping their chests in outrage over Phelps’ funeral protests. Would this new law have applied to the people who heckled prominent Republicans at Paul Wellstone’s memorial?

History has shown that fanatics like Phelps rarely are deterred by this kind of legislation. They either find other ways to outrage the public or they’ll go to prison in protest, gaining notoriety and support from their followers until these poorly conceived laws are overturned by the courts. It’s ironic that two Iraq war veterans – people who swore to defend the Constitution – are so eager to shred that document in order to curtail the antics of a ninth-rate hatemonger like Phelps. It seems that whenever the United States goes to war to protect our freedoms, we wind up with fewer of those freedoms to protect.

Timmy Ramone is a University alumnus. Please send comments to [email protected]