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Contact: Debbie Read (314) 652-3114 debbie@aclu-mo.org

Eighth Circuit Reaffirms Funeral Protests Are Protected By First Amendment

ST. LOUIS - October 5, 2011 – The United States Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit today affirmed last summer’s decision striking down the City of Manchester, Missouri’s funeral protest ordinance. The Court reaffirmed that peaceful pickets on public sidewalks near funerals are entitled to the protection of the First Amendment.

Manchester modeled its ordinance after an Ohio funeral protest statute that was found to be constitutional by a court in 2008. Today’s decision disagreed with that conclusion.

“It is not the job of the government to silence speech that we don’t want to hear,” said Brenda Jones, Executive Director of the ACLU of Eastern Missouri. “The response to speech that some find offensive should be more speech explaining the disagreement, not having the police arrest those who take an opposite view.”

“Manchester’s ordinance criminalized speech in a manner the First Amendment cannot tolerate,” said Anthony E. Rothert, legal director of the ACLU of Eastern Missouri and one of the attorneys representing Phelps-Roper. “Allowing speech we find offensive in public forums is one cost of the freedoms that define America. Today’s decision vindicates the American tradition of allowing robust public debate on issues of public importance.”

On August 16, 2010, Missouri’s funeral protest statute was declared unconstitutional. Chief Judge Fernando J. Gaitan, Jr., of the United States District Court for the Western District of Missouri, also struck down a back-up statute intended to go in effect when the original law was found unconstitutional. Both statutes were held to violate the First Amendment.

The decision can be viewed at: www.aclu-mo.org/phelpsroper