Wednesday, November 7, 2007

Funeral protests, free speech and defending everybody

Welcome to Cap City Liberty, the blog for the American Civil Liberties Union of Wisconsin's Madison Area Office. Here you can find more information about civil liberties issues that are happening in Madison and in the state of Wisconsin. Some federal issues will be discussed here as well, but for a full account of the latest in the abuse of federal power, please visit the national ACLU's website at

I started working for the ACLU of Wisconsin as the Madison Community Advocate a little over a year ago. One of the items in my first week's welcome basket came in the form of a very angry phone call from a concerned woman who wanted to know why we were defending the Reverend Fred Phelps of the God Hates Fags dot com fame. I patiently heard her complaints and her disgust in how anyone could support such a monster as Phelps who received national attention for demonstrating at the funeral of Matthew Shepard.

Anything I would have said to explain why First Amendment rights should cover even unpopular opinions and how passing laws just to stifle the protest of one radical and his band of merry sign-bearers is unAmerican probably wouldn't have been heard through her anger. She also probably wouldn't have heard that no one in the Wisconsin offices was actually connected to Phelps' law suit and that her complaints should have been directed to another affiliate.

So it only seems fitting to bring attention to a story that aired on National Public Radio's Morning Edition last week on how the "Kansas Church (has been) Ordered to Pay $10M for Disrupting (a Military) Funeral." This story has an interview with Rodney Smolla of the Washington and Lee University School of Law who describes the implications of the funeral protests, free speech, public versus private spaces, and the time/place/manner (or in this case, volume) of a demonstration. Smolla also describes why hate speech is protected and is separate from fighting words or an invasion of privacy.

The ACLU's involvement in such cases is best summarized by Bassel El-Kasaby, a lawyer hired by the ACLU to defend Shirley Phelps-Roper (Phelps' daughter) against a charge of flag desecration, a violation of a Nebraska state law. El-Kasaby says that she doesn't agree with the spirit of her client's actions, but she will defend her right to free expression. It was in the same spirit that the Madison Area Offices and students from the UW National Lawyers Guild organized legal observers to witness the fiery confrontation between anti-racist protesters at the rally of the National Socialist Movement (nazi) members in August of 2006. Free speech and protest rights, no matter how unpopular, should be defended. Even if you don't agree with the content. (And if there is no protest, there are no bunnies.)
- S.R. Harbaugh, Community Advocate

Take Action: Be a legal observer for the ACLU of Wisconsin - we're looking for volunteers who are willing to be neutral observers of public protests in order to help protect the first amendment rights of demonstrators. Contact the ACLU of Wisconsin's Madison Area Office to get on our legal observer volunteer list.

Learn More: Read "Defending Everybody: A History of the American Civil Liberties Union" by Diane Garey for more information on the long history of defending the basic freedoms of people in America. You can buy a copy from the ACLU at the link above. Or watch the film "The American Civil Liberties Union," created by Florentine Films.