BAKERSFIELD CALIFORNIAN EDITORIAL: When free speech and privacy, respect collide

September 19, 2012

If you were outraged by the Westboro Baptist Church's plans to protest at the Bakersfield funeral of Army Pfc. Ramon Villatoro Jr. in 2005, you will be heartened by the fact that such exhibitions, although still legal, will now be a little harder to pull off in California.

On Tuesday, Gov. Jerry Brown signed legislation restricting protests at military and other funerals. The Topeka, Kan.-based church, which has staged such protests for years on the basis of parishioners' belief that God is punishing the nation for its acceptance of gays, had threatened to picket Villatoro's funeral but didn't show up. Senate Bill 661, authored by Sen. Ted Lieu , D-Torrance, bans picketing a funeral within 300 feet of a burial or memorial site beginning one hour before a funeral and ending one hour afterward.

Westboro's behavior has long challenged contradictory American values: Free speech, privacy and respect for the deceased. Which takes precedence? In America we have almost always held that the First Amendment, difficult as it sometimes may be to stomach, rules.

Lieu's bill walks that line appropriately. SB 661 reduces the size of the no-protest zone Lieu had written into previous versions of his bill, which Brown vetoed. Will SB 661 pass constitutional muster? That remains to be seen, but courts have upheld other limits to free speech that offend community sensibilities.