The United States Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit filed its decision in the Shirley Phelps-Roper v. Chris Koster case on April 26, 2013.
"Today's decision is a victory for the free speech rights of all Americans," said Tony Rothert, legal director of the ACLU-EM. "The Eighth Circuit appellate court upheld the 2010 determination that Missouri's statutes, aimed to quash all protests and picketing near funeral and processions, are unconstitutional. In the United States, you cannot prohibit speech even if the majority of the public disagrees vehemently with it."
On January 24, 2011 U.S. District Judge Audrey Fleissig issued a preliminary injunction against a St. Charles County ordinance that would ban picketing within 300 feet of a funeral from one hour before to one hour after the ceremony.
The ACLU of Eastern Missouri had filed suit against the county on behalf of Shirley L. Phelps-Roper and other members of Westboro Baptist. They contend the ordinance impedes their First Amendment rights of free speech, religious liberty and assembly as well as violates Missouri's Religious Freedom Restoration Act.
The City of St. Charles filed a similar ordinance to the county and the ACLU challenged it the next day. It was enjoined by U.S. District Judge Carol Jackson.
St. Charles County Preliminary Injunction 012411
City of St. Charles Preliminary Injunction 022411
Press Release: Court Orders Sheriff Not To Enforce Flag Desecration And Funeral Protest Laws
A federal court entered a judgment yesterday prohibiting St. Francois County Sheriff Daniel Bullock from enforcing Missouri's statutes prohibiting desecration of the national and Missouri Flags and protests near funerals.
112210 Consent Judgment
Related case decision: Phelps-Roper vs. City of Manchester 090810 Summary Judgment Phelps
Decision: 081610 Order on Summary Judgment
Press Release: August 16, 2010
ACLU Wins Judgment in Case Challenging Ban on Protests Near Funerals
August 16, 2010 - The American Civil Liberties Union of Eastern Missouri today won a judgment in favor of Plaintiff Shirley Phelps-Roper, protecting her First Amendment right to freedom of speech. Chief United States District Judge Fernando J. Gaitan, Jr., declared Missouri’s funeral protest statute unconstitutional. The court also struck down a back-up statute intended to go in effect when the original law was found unconstitutional.
The decision affirmed the right of Phelps-Roper and other members of Westboro Baptist Church to hold pickets on public sidewalks near locations where funerals or memorial services are held. The law had been enjoined since January 2009 after an appellate court ruled that Phelps-Roper was likely to succeed on the merits and would be irreparably harmed in the absence of an injunction.
Members of Westboro Baptist Church believe that homosexuality is a sin and further believe that God is punishing America for the sin of homosexuality by killing Americans, including soldiers. Although church members have picketed outside funerals since 1993, they raised the ire of Missouri legislators in 2005 when they began picketing near military funerals.
The ACLU of Eastern Missouri filed suit on Phelps-Roper’s behalf in July, 2006, claiming the Missouri statute was an unconstitutional violation of the free speech provisions of the First Amendment. Unlike funeral protest bans enacted in other states, Missouri’s law does not require protestors to actually disrupt a funeral to be subject to arrest. The Missouri law is also unique in that criminalizes speech occurring near any funeral procession.
Today’s decision held that the Missouri statutes did not serve a significant government interest and were not narrowly tailored.
“In the end, Missouri’s laws are so broadly written that they criminalize wide swaths of 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 some find offensive in public forums is one cost of the freedom that defines America.”
“Free speech and the right to protest peacefully extend to all Americans, even if their messages are unpopular and distasteful,” said ACLU of Eastern Missouri cooperating attorney Benicia Livorsi of St. Charles, who also represents Phelps-Roper. “The government cannot pick and choose whose rights it is going to honor. Laws that restrict First Amendment rights never harm only one group; they pave the way for restrictions on the right to dissent for all groups.”
“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 might find offensive should be more speech explaining why we disagree, not having the police arrest those who take an opposite view.”
Today’s decision: 081610 Order on Summary Judgment
120607 ACLU Applauds Decision in Free Speech Case
New Panel Decision 103108
Second Petition for Rehearing 010709
Added 060409: Brief in Opposition_Phelps