Families of fallen soldiers looked on as the governor signed a bill Monday banning certain types of funeral protests.
Prompted by the recent controversy surrounding religious protests of homosexual soldiers, state legislators authored a bill earlier this month to forbid the disruptive demonstrations at funerals and memorial services.
Although the new law sparked outrage from some First Amendment advocates, Gov. Jim Doyle defended the measure as necessary to preserve the dignity of grieving families.
"I think that it is absolutely shameful that anyone would intentionally disgrace the funeral services of one of these fallen heroes," Doyle said. "It's unfortunate that a bill like this one is even necessary."
According to the measure, protests within 500 feet of funerals are prohibited the hour before, the time during and the hour after services.
Among the list of forbidden demonstrations are loud protests and visual displays of fighting words.
The law's provisions, Doyle added, strike a reasonable balance between citizens' rights to free speech and families' rights to peaceful ceremonies.
Though a majority of the state Legislature seemed to agree, voting to overwhelmingly pass the bill in early February, a few legislators expressed concern over the law's constitutionality.
"[The law] opens our right to self-expression for caveats," said Rep. Pedro Colón, D-Milwaukee, who was one of only three representatives to vote against the measure. "I think the more … exceptions you make to the First Amendment, the more you restrict that to the point that you don't have a First Amendment any more."
Many "Funeral Dignity Act" supporters, however, pointed to such First Amendment claims as an ironic insult to military heroes who died fighting for American liberties like the freedom of speech.
But Rep. Frank Boyle, D-Superior, disagreed, viewing the act as a step backward that contradicts all the work soldiers have accomplished.
"The people that go to war and the people that die in war [fight for] a basic civil liberty," Boyle's spokeswoman Mary Lou Keleher said. "[Boyle] doesn't agree that we should take that away from [citizens]."
However, Colón said the law reached beyond First Amendment rights, touching on issues of homosexuality in the military.
Colón said the recent funeral protests have been motivated by homophobic groups expressing disgust in Republican legislators' sudden support of such demonstrations.
"I find it very difficult that those who almost vilify homosexuals as a political tool to come around and say in the context of soldiers [that they] don't accept it," he said.
As legislators continue to debate the act's motives and effects, some question whether the new law would hold up to a constitutional challenge.
According to Doyle, the law strikes a reasonable balance between the concerns of First Amendment activists and grieving families.
"[W]e all understand that as Americans, people have the right to demonstrate their opinions, however abhorrent those opinions may be to us," Doyle said. "I think we also all believe Wisconsin families deserve the right to have a quiet, respectful place to grieve the loss of a loved one."
University of Wisconsin political science professor Donald Downs agreed that loud, disruptive protests should be outlawed, but was less sure about displays of fighting words.
Citing a U.S. Supreme Court decision which struck down a Washington, D.C., law banning protesting within 500 feet of an embassy, Downs said taking a protest too far away from its subject could be grounds for an unconstitutional ruling.
Downs added, however, that Wisconsin's Funeral Dignity Act is a different situation.
"Not being able to come within 500 feet of a funeral seems to me a more reasonable case. A funeral has a certain amount of delicacy in it," he said, adding that the law is a "time, place and manner" restriction which does not regulate the message's content.
But Downs debated the constitutionality of the law's restriction of fighting words.
"The further away from a funeral you go, the harder it is to call it fighting words," he added.
Violators of the new law are subject to up to $10,000 in fines and up to nine months in prison.