Nevada lawmakers, military groups and free-speech advocates struggled Thursday over a bill to restrict demonstrations near funerals - a measure drafted in response to protests at military funerals around the country.
AB159, prohibits demonstrations within 300 feet of any funeral, memorial service or ceremony from one hour before to one hour after the event.
At least 32 states have enacted similar laws, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. But a Kentucky law was suspended last year by a federal judge, who said it went too far in limiting free speech. Such laws in Missouri and Ohio also have faced court challenges, according to the NCSL.
Also, a federal law enacted last year restricts protests at military cemeteries, unless permission is granted by the cemetery manager.
Freshman Assemblyman Lynn Stewart, R-Henderson, chief sponsor of AB159, sought to fend off criticism based on free speech issues, saying that restrictions on the time, place and manner of free speech have been allowed in the past.
"We are not stopping them from protesting or saying whatever their opinion is. We are just saying, 'Don't say it during that two-hour period. Just give these people the quiet, honorable, dignified place to say goodbye to those who have given their lives,"' said Stewart, who served in the Army in Vietnam.
Representatives from the state Office of Veterans Services, the Enlisted Association of the National Guard of the United States and the Nevada Military Department also spoke in favor of the bill during an Assembly Judiciary Committee hearing.
Assemblyman William Horne, D-Las Vegas, said the bill had clear constitutional problems and would be overturned by the courts. He said the main issue would be implementing the law because police would have discretion on when to enforce it.
Horne wondered how police would handle a funeral where on one side of a street demonstrators were showing support, while on the other side the protest was offensive.
"To say these people can demonstrate because we like what they are saying, but this group can't because we don't like what they are saying, that's where the problem lies," said Horne, whose father served two tours in Vietnam.
Frank Adams of Nevada Sheriffs' and Chiefs' Association said discretionary situations are more difficult for police to handle, adding, "The clearer the law is, the better it is for us to enforce."
Allen Lichtenstein, general counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union of Nevada, said the language in the bill is too broad. He said a politician's speech on Memorial Day could be construed as a "memorial ceremony."
But Lichtenstein said the law could be written in a way that would limit First Amendment problems while still targeting disruptions of military funerals.
The ACLU in Missouri has a lawsuit pending in U.S. District Court in Jefferson City, Mo., which it filed on behalf of the fundamentalist Westboro Baptist Church.
The church has outraged mourning communities by showing up at soldiers' funerals with anti-homosexual signs. The church and the Rev. Fred Phelps claim God is allowing soldiers, coal miners and others to be killed because the United States tolerates homosexuals.
Raymond Flynn with the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department said there could be a way to prevent disruption of funerals by modeling the bill after statutes that limit disruption of religious ceremonies.
Besides AB159, lawmakers are considering SB29, a Senate measure that would restrict demonstrations at veterans' cemeteries without permission from the manager of the cemetery.