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Obama signs law limiting protests at military funerals

US President Barack Obama [official profile] on Monday signed [press release] the Honoring America's Veterans and Caring for Camp Lejeune Families Act of 2012 [HR 1627 materials], which provides a number of benefits to veterans and limits the ability to protest at a military funeral. In addition to authorizing the veterans benefits the new law requires that protests be at least 300 feet from the funeral and bars protesting within two hours before or after a ceremony. The requirements under the law counter a 2011 Supreme Court [official website] decision [JURIST report] finding that protests at funerals are protected by the First Amendment [text] right to free speech. In signing the bill Obama commented [remarks] that "obviously we all defend our Constitution and the First Amendment and free speech, but we also believe that when men and women die in the service of their country and are laid to rest, it should be done with the utmost honor and respect." The newly signed law is apparently written in part to prevent protests like those led by Reverend Fred Phelps and members of the Westboro Baptist Church [JURIST news archive], who in recent years have been traveling around the country picketing military funerals claiming US soldiers have been killed because the US tolerates homosexuals.

The Supreme Court's ruling affirmed a ruling [opinion, PDF] by the US Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit [official website] holding that the Phelps' speech was protected by the First Amendment. The Fourth Circuit overturned a lower court decision which awarded the family [JURIST report] almost $11 million in damages. At oral arguments counsel for the petitioner argued [JURIST report] that the court should place an emphasis on the context of the speech in light of the fact that the protests took place at a military funeral. Counsel for the church argued that, because Snyder had turned his son's funeral into a public event, the church's actions were protected because they were speaking on a matter of public concern.

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