COLUMBUS, OH – Today, the American Civil Liberties Union of Ohio called on Ohio state legislators to stand up for free speech. The Ohio General Assembly is expected to vote this week to prohibit protest activities near funerals.
“The First Amendment guarantee of free speech is the hallmark of our constitutional freedoms,” said Carrie Davis, ACLU of Ohio Staff Counsel. “By restricting all speech around funerals, the General Assembly is abridging everyone’s right to speak in order to silence one bad apple.”
The funeral protest bans proposed in Ohio and elsewhere are directed toward the controversial activity of Fred Phelps and the Westboro Baptist Church of Topeka, Kansas. Phelps and his followers use military funeral protests to garner attention for their message that God is punishing the United States for accepting homosexuality.
“While using others’ grief as a bully-pulpit is certainly in poor taste, we must recognize that all speech – even that which is offensive – is protected by the Constitution,” Davis said.
“By passing funeral protest bans that Phelps said would be challenged in court – and which most likely are unconstitutional – the legislature is handing Phelps both credibility and Ohio taxpayer dollars. The best way to deal with a bully is to ignore him, not to support him,” Davis continued.
Two Ohio legislators, Representative John Boccieri (D-New Middletown) and Senator Gary Cates (R-West Chester), introduced similar bills to ban all protesters from an hour before until an hour after funerals within a set distance of the funeral.
“Ohio’s proposed ban is overbroad and sweeps in all sorts of legally protected speech,” Davis added. “Family and friends wishing to protest police abuse, hate crimes, lack of funding to treat diseases, or other issues of public concern would be silenced as well.”