State Legislature has forgotten that extremism has a voice, too

State Legislature has forgotten that extremism has a voice, too
"Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances."

Walk into the conference room of the Al Neuharth Media Center, located on The University of South Dakota campus, and you'll find these words in bold letters, prominently displayed on a large sign.

Walk past the building outdoors, and you'll find this expression again, set in the stone masonry above the building's entrance.


These are the words of our federal Constitution's First Amendment. It's no accident that they are draped upon the Neuharth Media Center, a place where young women and men learn to hone their talents in journalism, and, at the same time, learn about all of the freedoms we enjoy in this nation, particularly the freedom of the press.

One learns, upon closer examination of the First Amendment, that our founding fathers had a host of freedoms in mind when they formed our government more than two centuries ago.

Such as the freedom of speech, the freedom to peaceably assemble, and the freedom to petition the government.

My many visits to the Neuharth Center and the subsequent constant exposure to words that form the very foundation of our freedom, I suppose, caused me to watch in disbelief Monday as the South Dakota House of Representatives unanimously gave its nod to SB 156.

The South Dakota Senate also passed the measure quickly Monday. It was signed by the governor that afternoon, and, thanks to a provision written into the legislation, it immediately became law.

SB 156 is, at best, our state's reaction to a bunch of kooks from the Westboro Baptist Church of Topeka, KS.

This group has been traveling the country, picketing. They recently showed up at the funeral of Coretta Scott King.

The group has protested outside of a memorial service for the 12 miners who died in the Sago Mine disaster and have also protested at funerals for U.S. servicemembers who died in Iraq. They've traveled to Yankton and other South Dakota communities that have lost young men and women in the war.

The protesters believe that God is killing Americans in punishment for the country's support of gays and lesbians.

It would be so easy, I suppose, to get into an emotional argument about the disturbing aspects of the Topeka group.

It would be just as easy to debate the ramifications of SB 156 � debate that, it turns out, was sorely lacking in the South Dakota House Monday.

SB 156 deals with some serious stuff � such as, for starters, the abridgement of the freedom of speech and the right to peacefully assemble.

Was their any serious discussion to this bill, which is only about 20 lines long?

Nope. Its passage was a slam dunk. You would have thought our state lawmakers and governor were naming the Asian Lady Beetle the new state bug.

Here, in a nutshell, are the changes brought about by SB 156:

? No person may engage in any act of picketing any funeral service during the period from one hour before the scheduled commencement of the funeral services until one hour after the actual completion of the services. Any violation of this section is a Class 2 misdemeanor. Each day on which a person violates this section constitutes a separate offense.

? Notwithstanding the criminal penalties provided in the first section of this new law, the circuit court may award damages, including attorney fees, or other appropriate relief against any person who is repeatedly found guilty of actions made unlawful by SB 156.

? This law immediately became law after being signed by the governor because "for the immediate preservation of the public peace, health, or safety, an emergency is hereby declared to exist."

It is not hard to imagine the extra pain caused at a funeral by a lunatic fringe group of demonstrators, waving signs with hate-filled messages, such as "God Hates Fags."

At the same time, however, we all must remember something that the authors and supporters of SB 156 have apparently forgotten: Extremism has a voice, too.

It is so very tempting to do all we can to discourage the Topeka group from gathering to advance what most of us would agree is a strange, misguided message.

Perhaps we shouldn't be surprised of this latest test of our Constitution, that pits the gatherings of fringe groups and the need for a secure, democratic society.

We shouldn't be surprised that most of us, who represent level-headed members of society, are repulsed by these demonstrators and feel the need to suppress their unpopular and unsavory messages.

All of this confirms the importance of the First Amendment to organizations with views to which many people object. Organizations like the Ku Klux Klan, the Nazis, and yes, the Westboro Baptist Church.

The Supreme Court observed in 1958, "It is beyond debate that freedom to engage in association for the advancement of beliefs and ideas is an inseparable aspect of the ?liberty' assured by the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, which embraces freedom of speech."

What both bodies of the state Legislature conveniently forgot Monday is free speech guaranteed by our Constitution isn't required to be pretty.

Freedom of speech often confronts, challenges, provokes and revolts. Speech often serves as a catalyst for social change and sometimes as a weapon to attack one's enemies.

We won't argue that there are times when bodies such as the state Legislature are justified in their attempts to regulate speech.

In general, however, the government must show that the law serves an important objective (not involving the suppression of speech), that the law is narrowly tailored, and that there remain ample alternative means of communication.�

When viewed in that context, SB 156 is a bad law. We are confused by its opening statement, which reads, "An act to prohibit the picketing of funerals under certain circumstances, to provide penalties for the violation thereof, and to declare an emergency."

According to that sentence, the bill prohibits picketing. Period. You don't even need the rest of the bill.

There also is ample evidence that the bill violates Time, Place and Manner regulations that have been ruled on again and again by the U.S. Supreme Court.

The bill simultaneously restricts the time that funeral protests may be held (picketing must stop one hour before the service and can only begin one hour after the service is completed) and the place that they may be held.

The bill creates a huge buffer zone, larger than three football fields laid end to end. Protest activities are limited to an area 1,000 feet of the funeral service.

We don't question the intentions of those who drafted this legislation. They no doubt truly believe it will, in its own unique way, keep the peace and secure freedom.

Lawmakers are wrong to have such assumptions, however. SB 156 flies in the face of our First Amendment and we expect it will eventually be challenged and struck down in court.

This has been a sad year for our state. We have lost several young servicemen, including soldiers from Sioux Falls, Parkston and three alone from Yankton.

During their memorial services and funerals, they've been rightly hailed as heroes, as patriots, as people who have donned military uniforms to fight to preserve the freedoms we enjoy in this country.

It is ironic that, in the future, when a young woman or man dies in the line of duty protecting our nation's freedom, there will be at least one group of people who will be suppressed.

Let's bring back liberty and freedom of expression. Let's hope that, eventually, SB 156 will be ruled unconstitutional.

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