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Bill Protects Grieving Families from Protesters

State Sen. Ted Lieu, who represents the 28th District in the California State Senate, explains his latest legislation designed to keep protesters away from funerals.

For two years I’ve worked with a broad coalition of Democrats, Republicans and veterans groups on legislation to protect grieving families in California from hate-filled funeral protests.

While our goal is immensely popular, we’ve been forced to reckon with the delicate balance between a universal human truth—the sanctity of mourning our loved ones—and the Constitution’s protections of speech, even speech that we find abhorrent.

Though Gov. Brown vetoed last year’s bill for fear of the Supreme Court striking it down, his administration is working with us to draft similar legislation that will withstand legal scrutiny.

That proposal, Senate Bill 661, is currently making its way through the Legislature. It’s continuing to earn broad support and all indicators tell us it will once again end up on the governor’s desk where he’ll have the opportunity to sign it into law and provide comfort to California’s grieving families.

I’m optimistic that our revised measure addresses his concerns and will earn his signature, but until I see the stroke of his pen making it official, I’m going to keep asking you to join our coalition and let California lawmakers know the importance of this bill.

To this end, I’m inspired by recent displays of patriotism and community pride by our fellow Californians in Anderson (way up north on Interstate 5, near Redding).

Earlier this year, as the hate-spewing Phelps family and their independent Westboro, N.C., church threatened to protest the funeral of Naval Petty Officer First Class Chad Regelin who was killed in Afghanistan, the people of Anderson, Redding and the surrounding communities lined the streets of Petty Officer Regelin’s procession to drown out the protest. The heartfelt show of respect proved so overwhelming that if any protestors showed up, reporters covering the event were unable to find them.

I remain resolute that California has the ability and the responsibility to place a reasonable limitation on speech to protect grieving families. In SB 661 I have addressed Gov. Brown’s concerns with last year’s 1000-foot buffer zone by reducing the footage. Additional changes reflect the guidance handed down by the Supreme Court in their Snyder v. Phelps ruling, the case where the Supreme Court ruled 8-1 in favor of the right of Westboro and the Phelps family to protest, but did not rule buffer zones unconstitutional.

In opposition to my bill, the American Civil Liberties Union and California Attorneys for Criminal Justice have argued that current law is sufficient to thwart protestors. I disagree.

The types of protests we are seeing at funerals do not violate any current law dealing with trespassing on private property or blocking the public ways. Current law allows protesters to continue, just feet away from grieving families.

SB 661 creates a reasonable limitation on speech to protect families from disruptive protests while carefully balancing the constitutionally protected right of free speech.

Famed 19th century statesman and four-time British Prime Minister, Sir William Gladstone is often quoted as arguing, “Show me the manner in which a nation cares for its dead and I will measure with mathematical exactness the tender mercies of its people, their respect for the laws of the land, and their loyalty to high ideals.”

In California, we have the opportunity to affirm those higher ideals and our respect for the laws of our land, while underscoring the sanctity of mourning. Protesters should not be able to disrupt funeral services—that is both constitutional and common sense.

Ted W. Lieu, D-Torrance, represents nearly 1 million residents in State Senate District 28, which includes the cities of Carson, El Segundo, Hermosa Beach, Lomita, Manhattan Beach, Redondo Beach and Torrance, as well as areas of Los Angeles and Long Beach.

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