FRANKFORT — When 17-year-old high school senior Zach Parker heard that the Supreme Court had ruled last week to protect the free speech of the Westboro Baptist Church, first he was shocked.
Then he rolled up his sleeves.
“Our next step is to push federal legislation as much as we can,” the Frankfort teen said in a telephone interview Sunday about the legal decision.
Parker made national headlines late last year and in January when he went public with his proposed legislation, titled the “Respect for Fallen Heroes and Citizens Act of 2010.” The proposed bill would ban disruptions at funerals — including the church’s infamous anti-gay protests at military funerals — and keep picketers 1,000 feet away from the cemetery grounds or entrance road.
Eight Supreme Court justices sided with the fundamentalist church in Topeka, Kan., determining that First Amendment protections for free speech protect even “hurtful speech on public issues to ensure that we do not stifle public debate,” according to the opinion written by Chief Justice John Roberts.
Justice Samuel Alito was the lone dissenter in a lawsuit that had been brought by Albert Snyder, who sued church members for the emotional pain they caused by showing up at his Marine son Matthew’s funeral.
“I think the justices missed it,” Parker said. “I think that the ball was in their court and they missed the shot.”
He likened the Westboro Baptist Church protests to hate speech and harassment and said that it should not be protected by the First Amendment.
“I wish we could appeal, I really really wish, but we can’t appeal,” he said. “It went to the highest court, and they said no.”
Parker’s quest to change the law will continue. On Wednesday, he will meet with Gov. Paul LePage to discuss the proposed legislation. Although the teen has not yet talked with the governor, he said that it sounds as if LePage is supportive.
At a rally and presentation he held at his high school in January attended by hundreds, representatives from the offices of Sens. Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe and Rep. Mike Michaud read statements that seemed generally supportive of the proposal.
After the Supreme Court ruling, Collins said in a statement that it was clear the justices had grappled with the constitutional balance between free speech and privacy.
“I have always believed that the loved ones of our fallen servicemen and women should be able to mourn in privacy and without harassment,” she said.
Collins supported the Respect for America’s Fallen Heroes Act in 2006, which was passed unanimously in the U.S. Senate and signed into law by President Bush. That law established restrictions on protests occurring at Arlington National Cemetery and also instructed each state to enact its own legislation on the issue with more than 40 states joining the government in legally limiting funeral protests, Collins said.
Sen. Olympia J. Snowe said in a statement that she was “deeply disappointed by the Court’s decision.”
“As a nation, we cherish our rights to freedom of speech,” she said, “but I am troubled that the Court’s ruling fails to protect grieving survivors of our nation’s fallen heroes during their one and only opportunity to conduct a funeral with the dignity that they and their loved one deserve.”
Parker heard over the weekend that the church planned to sue states that were restricting protests. He intends to speak with LePage about this matter as well.
If his proposed legislation were to go further on the road to becoming law, it would first need to be introduced to the U.S. House of Representatives or the U.S. Senate by a member of the House or the Senate.
At the Jan. 5 presentation, Parker told the audience that his efforts were inspired by veterans.
“This is about the people who sacrificed their lives to serve this country,” he said then. “I’m going to fight the fight and see what we can get accomplished.”