by Max Brantley
The 8th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals upheld today a Missouri city ordinance aimed at picketing and other forms of protests at funerals. Such protests may be limited, the court said, as to time, place and manner — in this case 300 feet from a service during and for an hour on either side of the service. Arkansas and Congress have passed similar laws.
The U.S. Supreme Court had earlier overruled a damage suit by a father whose military veteran son's funeral was targeted by the Westboro Baptist Church of Topeka for one of its many protests at military funerals, loosely built around denunciations of homosexuality. But, the 8th Circuit said, that Supreme Court decision made clear it was for the specific case at which protesters had complied with an even stricter law on funeral limits. It left the door open to some restrictions. The 8th Circuit decided today there was a significant public interest in protecting "the privacy interests of funeral attendees," equivalent to that extended to people in their homes and, by statute, people seeking to enter health facilities.
The full 8th Circuit heard the case and none dissented, though a concurrence from Judge Lavenski Smith of Arkansas noted:
... this court is extending the circumference of what this circuit has previously found constitutes a significant government interest. The uniqueness of the funeral assembly justifies it. We must be concerned, however, that few, if any, other places become walled off to the free expression of ideas due to their potential effect on the hearer.