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Expression beyond the lunatic fringe

Published: Saturday, April 13, 2013 8:01 a.m. CDT

The right to speech frequently crosses the line into the realm of nuisance.

You can be sitting in a public place and hear conversation of an insulting nature: Either the language is coarse or the topic uncivil. You can complain about it, of course, and your complaint is your right — just as it is the right of the person whose talk stirred up the debate in the first place.

Knowing when to clamp down on such rancor has been a problem in this country since our founders wrote the Constitution, which under the First Amendment guarantees freedom of expression.

Now, comes a situation that none of us with clear heads could have imagined years ago, that people would actually stage chaotic protests at funerals of servicemen. We’ve covered a couple of such local cases. It’s mind-blowing to acknowledge that such lunatic-fringe diatribe generates publicity.

We’ll skip the part where we further publicize those individuals and their “mission” and get right down to the situation before the Illinois General Assembly, which is considering legislation that would put stricter limitations on protesters who seek to disturb funeral and memorial services of fallen military members. The House has passed a resolution and the Senate is now considering it.

House Bill 2916 would strengthen laws that ban disorderly conduct at such services. Such conduct can include: making disruptive noises, such as yelling; displaying threatening visual images; and preventing another person’s entry or exit from a funeral site.

Under existing state law, protesters must be at least 300 feet away from the site of the funeral and are prohibited from conducting protests 30 minutes before and after the service.

HB 2916 would extend those mandates: All protests would have to take place at least 1,000 feet away from the funeral. And protests are limited to one hour before and after services.

Those seem like fair-minded measures, although you wonder if the next move might not be 2,000 feet in distance and two hours in time.

We also wonder what those deceased soldiers might think about such efforts to rein in speech. It is, after all, one of the covenants under which servicemen give their oath:

“I ... do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic ...”

This is all a very sticky wicket. House Bill 2916 is well-intended. In fact, it’s downright honorable. But if it were to be defeated, it also would not bother us.


This editorial appeared in The Telegraph, Alton, Ill.


©2013 The Telegraph (Alton, Ill.)

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