They’re sickos. They’re morally depraved. But it’s not right to use force to forbid them from expressing their views, so long as they don’t invade the property of others to do it. As much as they horrify me, I’m strongly opposed to passing special laws to shut up the Fred Phelps cult. On the other hand, as CNN has reported, the law seems merely to extend an exclusive right over public (i.e., state-owned) property for limited times and for a rather limited distance:
Under the Senate bill, approved without objection by the House with no recorded vote, the “Respect for America’s Fallen Heroes Act” would bar protests within 300 feet of the entrance of a cemetery and within 150 feet of a road into the cemetery from 60 minutes before to 60 minutes after a funeral. Those violating the act would face up to a $100,000 fine and up to a year in prison.
They would not be stopped from standing 301 feet away and shouting vulgarities and holding up signs celebrating the death of soldiers. (Special note to Jeremy Sapienza.) The restrictions would be rather limited. The fine and the prison sentence do seem draconian and ridiculous, but allowing the police to clear them off the road doesn’t strike me as outrageous or any worse than prohibiting loud demonstrations through the streets at 4 am, when they would wake up sleeping residents. (Of course, some may think that crazy people should be able to rove at will inside national cemetaries and scream obscenities and vulgarities at grieving families and that loud demonstrations down quiet residential streets should be allowed at 4 am. I’m not in that group; even state propery can be properly limited in its uses when those uses generate sufficient negative externalities.)
On a side note, it’s remarkable that the lobby for gay acceptance couldn’t have asked for better enemies than those weird and demented people, who have now identified America and military veterans and heroes as evil because the U.S. is a “fag nation.”
Update: Eugene Volokh has a useful treatment of whether the bill offers “simply a content-neutral ban on speech that disturbs because of its noisiness and not its message.”