Please ensure Javascript is enabled for purposes of website accessibility

Two funeral picketing bills debated in committee

ANNAPOLIS — State Sen. Roy P. Dyson made no effort Wednesday to conceal his anger at a protester or disappointment in the Supreme Court as he urged colleagues to approve legislation to require picketers at funerals to stand at least 500 feet from mourners.

Dyson called protester Fred Phelps “a son of a bitch” for having led Phelps’ Kansas-based Westboro Baptist Church in carrying signs proclaiming “Thank God for Dead Soldiers” and similar sentiments at the March 10, 2006, memorial service for Marine Lance Cpl. Matthew Snyder in Westminster. The 20-year-old was killed when his vehicle overturned in Iraq’s Al Anbar Province that month.

The church’s protest undoubtedly exacerbated the distress already being endured by Snyder’s father, Albert, Dyson told the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee.

The senator also assailed the Supreme Court for its ruling this month that the church had a First Amendment right to picket the solemn event.

“The Supreme Court I think is sometimes wrongheaded,” said Dyson, D-Calvert, Charles and St. Mary’s. “I don’t have to agree with the Supreme Court.”

Violators of the proposed law would be subject to the same penalties as under the current 100-foot buffer: 90 days in prison and a $1,000 fine for each offense.

“Our bill does not cut off anybody’s free speech,” said Dyson, who co-sponsored the measure with Sen. Lisa A. Gladden, D-Baltimore City. “We just want to keep it at a distance.”

The legislation, SB 977, is one of two funeral-protest measures for which testimony was invited Wednesday.

A stricter measure, SB 982, would bar protesters from standing within 1,000 feet of a funeral, burial, memorial service or funeral procession.

Violations would be punishable by one year in prison and a $5,000 fine for a first offense. Subsequent offenses would be punishable by three years in prison and a $15,000 fine.

Sen. Bryan W. Simonaire, R-Anne Arundel, the more-stringent bill’s sponsor, called Westboro’s protest “unconscionable.”

Both bills drew criticism from the state’s American Civil Liberties Union chapter. Though it went “beyond egregious,” Westboro’s protest enjoyed First Amendment protection, said Joanna Diamond, of the ACLU of Maryland.

Setting protesters back 500 feet, much less 1,000 feet, would violate their right to free speech and the ability to be heard, Diamond told the committee.

“For better or worse, we have to respect those constitutional rights,” Diamond said. “That is why this country, this state, is so great, because we have these First Amendment protections.”

But Sen. Christopher P. Shank, a committee member, questioned whether Westboro’s protest signs — which included “God Hates Fags” and “You’re going to Hell” — were fighting words, which might not enjoy constitutional protection.

“It’s a ticking time bomb,” Shank said of the words. “It’s an incitement to violence.”

Diamond responded that violence has not broken out at any of Westboro’s many such protests nationwide. But Shank seemed unconvinced.

“They have a right to protest. We get that,” said Shank, R-Washington. “We just want to keep them out of the faces of the mourners.”

Sen. Brian E. Frosh, D-Montgomery, who chairs the committee, did not say when the panel would vote on the legislation.

The Supreme Court, in its controversial March 2 ruling, upheld a 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals decision that overturned a $5 million judgment against Westboro and in favor of Albert Snyder on a claim of intentional infliction of emotional distress. Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr., in the majority opinion, said Westboro’s protest contributed to Snyder’s “already incalculable grief” but that the church’s speech was protected under the First Amendment.

“Westboro’s funeral picketing is certainly hurtful and its contribution to public discourse may be negligible,” Roberts wrote.

“But Westboro addressed matters of public import on public property, in a peaceful manner, in full compliance with the guidance of local officials,” Roberts added. “[W]hat Westboro said, in the whole context of how and where it chose to say it, is entitled to ‘special protection’ under the First Amendment, and that protection cannot be overcome by a jury finding that the picketing was outrageous.”

Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr., the court’s sole dissenter, called Westboro’s actions a “vicious” assault that “brutalized” Snyder. Alito said the church went beyond commenting on public matters and attacked Matthew Snyder as a private citizen because he was Catholic and a soldier.

“When grave injury is intentionally inflicted by means of an attack like the one at issue here, the First Amendment should not interfere with recovery,” Alito wrote. “[I] fail to see why actionable speech should be immunized simply because it is interspersed with speech that is protected.”