State Representative Jim Cantwell, of Marshfield, is sponsoring a bill that targets funeral protesters–specifically the Westboro Baptist Church protesters who travel the country protesting funerals of fallen military service men and women.
The bill is aimed at putting tighter restrictions on protests at funerals, and comes after the Supreme Court ruled that Westboro Baptist Church members were within their rights to protest at a funeral for a Maryland marine killed in Iraq. The Supreme Court ruled that the protesters obeyed police instructions and stayed 1,000 feet from the funeral.
Cantwell said his interpretation of the Supreme Court decision allows regulations of free speech in terms of time, place and manner.
“The bill is an act to protect that sanctity of funerals,” said Cantwell. “In Massachusetts we have current a law that says folks can’t protest with in 500 feet of a funeral. The Supreme Court went forward in saying that you can restrict time, place and manner of certain speech.”
Cantwell’s bill would not allow protests two hours before a service or two hours after services, and proposes doubling the distance Massachusetts requires protesters to stay away from services from the current 500 feet to 1000 feet.
Cantwell said his bill aims to strike a careful balance.
“We are trying to balance our first amendment protections for freedom of speech with trying to protect the families of these loved ones,” said Cantwell.
Cantwell said the bill has the support of Massachusetts Secretary of Veterans Affairs Coleman Knee, a Cohasset native, as well as the Massachusetts Association of Funeral Homes, and could be taken up by the legislature anytime during this two-year legislative session.