The Oswego County Legislature will vote on legislation that prohibits groups or individuals from picketing or disrupting military funerals in Oswego County. They are planning on voting on Oct. 13.
The law prohibits demonstrations within 500 feet of a funeral or memorial event, from two hours prior to two hours after the event. Violations are punishable by a fine of up to $1,000 and up to one year’s imprisonment.
The measure is receiving support from both Republicans and Democrats in the Legislature, which is overwhelmingly dominated by Republicans. Despite broad support for the protest ban, our Legislature is dead wrong.
Protests at military funerals is an issue that instantly makes the public’s blood boil. It riles up emotions, and unfortunately, people often tend to act on their emotions. This is almost certainly the case with the Legislature.
“The… law recognizes the significant sacrifice that deceased and former members of the United States Armed Forces have made in defense of this nation and further recognizes that the county of Oswego is currently home to approximately 18,000 veterans,” Legislature Chairman Barry Leemann (R-Amboy) said in a press release.
Local veterans also overwhelmingly support a ban on protests at military funerals, Donna Kestner, director of Oswego County’s Veterans Service Agency, said in the release.
Emotions aside, such a broad ban on protests at military funerals is against the spirit of what the Founders intended when they composed the Constitution.
The First Amendment is meant to protect freedom of speech and assembly for everyone, not just a select few. The Legislature has, in effect, used the idea of time, place and manner restraints to stifle all speech. Time, place and manner restrictions were meant to curb speech that interrupts normal activity.
Any time, place and manner restriction must be content neutral, narrowly tailored, serve a significant governmental interest and leave other alternative channels for communication. Therein lies the problem. The Legislature failed to keep the law content neutral, nor does it serve a significant government interest. It was meant to stifle all speech at military funerals. Veterans certainly deserve to be honored, but not at the expense of our liberty.
Opponents of funeral protests would argue soldiers and veterans are the reason we have the freedoms we hold dear. Shouldn’t they then be exempt from the pain and hurt that can come from people exercising their rights? In reality, those soldiers exist to protect our freedoms, but each of us must be ready to safeguard them on our own. Liberty must be protected at all expense, even the pain and suffering of families of fallen soldiers. Without our liberty, there’s no need for soldiers to protect it.
The Supreme Court understands that perfectly. In Westboro vs. Snyder, the Court ruled in favor of Westboro Baptist Church, saying its members could protest at military funerals. Westboro is a tiny extremist church situated in Kansas that believes God is punishing America with multiple wars for its tollerance of homosexuality. When he delivered the Court’s ruling, observers said Chief Justice John Roberts’ voice was filled with sorrow, as if to apologize for protecting the rights of such awful people.
Virtually everyone in the United States recognizes that the members of Westboro are insane extremists. However, if the rights of crazy people like them are protected, everyone can rest easy with the knowledge that their freedom of speech is safe.
It might seem like a minor restriction on speech, but that’s how tyranny begins in the first place. People don’t wake up one day to find they live in a totalitarian state. It’s unlikely any society would accept such abrupt changes. Instead, repression takes hold slowly and deliberately. Freedoms are chipped away bit by bit until they collapse altogether.
The fact that the Oswego County Legislature may ban protests at military funerals does not mean our freedoms have been eroded to the point of collapse. The sun rose to thousands of copies of this paper on newsstands. Our freedoms still exist, albeit in a tarnished form. It’s just that if we give an inch of our liberty, we might as well give a mile.
If we want to honor our veterans and soldiers, we should do it by safeguarding our liberties.