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Bill would allow more protection at military funerals; ACLU says it's unconstitutional

Grieving military families will get an additional measure of protection from protesters as a new bill is expected to be signed into law Aug. 14 at the Illinois State Fair.

Sponsored by State Rep. Kay Hatcher, R-Yorkville, House Bill 180 expands the perimeter of privacy protecting grieving families from protesters to 300 feet from 200 feet. It also prohibits protests from 30 minutes before the funeral begins to 30 minutes after the service ends.

Hatcher said in a prepared statement that the bill was a simple issue of respect and consideration owed to families saying goodbye to a loved one.

Ed Yohnka, spokesman for the American Civil Liberties Union, said the new law would still be unconstitutional.

“The problem is, in this instance, that this is essentially a ban on images and words that folks like the Westboro Baptist Church use when they protest across the street from funerals,” Yohnka said. “We believe it is an erroneous interpretation of the ‘fighting words’ doctrine.”

First Amendment free speech rights do not give someone the right to say something that is known to provoke violence, the basis of the “fighting words” doctrine, he said.

“Whatever one thinks of the views of the Westboro Baptist Church, they are often silent in protest and hold up signs in a public place, in public space that does not rise to the threshold of ‘fighting words,’ ” Yohnka said.

Ron Singer, Fourth Ward Alderman in Geneva and a Korean War veteran, said he felt comfortable with the direction of Hatcher’s legislation.

“I have attended a great number of those funerals of veterans and even if it’s not a veteran, I think the family should be given that sense of privacy and respect,” Singer said.

“I would think it [the law] would protect the First Amendment. It’s going to be interesting to see if this will be adjudicated.”

Veronica Storck, deputy assistant state captain for the Illinois Patriot Guard, said the legislation was welcome.

“I think it’s fantastic,” Storck said. “We don’t see near as much protesters as we used to. Anything that can keep them back from that family, we are absolutely 100 percent for.”

The patriot guard began attending funerals of soldiers to protect protesters from the Westboro Baptist Church in Kansas.

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