Friday, 12 April 2013

Another Test For Freedom: Protesting Funerals

Having introduced an unpopular tax, been hanged in effigy and seen an unprecedented series of protests during their time in office, some were still taken aback when plans were announced for protests at the recently deceased leader's funeral. Thinking Margaret Thatcher? Wrong.

Massachusetts Lt. Governor Andrew Oliver died in March 1774 just a few months after the tumultuous events of the Boston Tea Party (and a few years after his official, if not personal, support of the Stamp Act which helped lead up to it). Samuel Adams, who would go on to become one the USA's Founding Fathers, was taken aback at plans to honour Oliver at his funeral and at Oliver's funeral a contingent of the Sons of Liberty (including Sam Adams) turned up and cheered as Oliver's body was lowered into the ground.

Many years later the country Samuel Adams fought for so earnestly has faced a new wave of uncomfortable and disturbing funeral protests from a small but vocal group. The Westboro Baptist Church has become infamous for its protests since the 1990s. They came to international attention, especially among LGBT people, in 1998 when they protested at the murdered Matthew Shepard's funeral. And they didn't just stop there, finding even greater notoriety (something the WBC appear to thrive upon) in protesting the funerals of soldiers of the Afghanistan and Iraq wars.

So abhorrent a concept as protesting someone's funeral has been rightly condemned almost universally. This group that protests at the funerals of everyone from gay men to "true American heroes" is one that managed to breakdown the barriers between the Culture War opposing camps and allowed those camps to join together in shared disgust. And this widespread feeling was not slow in being acted upon by local, state and national authorities.

In a test for the right to free speech these authorities have for years tried to restrict and, occasionally, even ban the WBC from protesting at or near funerals. Just this week Florida has expanded its restrictions. But ultimately the courts have upheld the right of the Phelps family and their followers to freely protest even when that protest may be extremely distressing.

I've very mixed emotions over the concept of protesting at funerals. Just thinking about someone doing so makes me upset and angry. I cannot begin to imagine how hurtful and distressing these protests must be for the families of those who have died. And yet, when the Phelps were banned from visiting the United Kingdom, I wrote in their defence. Like many other things, such as porn for example, you may not like what you see or hear but the Westboro Baptist Church have a right to protest just as anyone else does.

Which brings us to next weeks funeral for Margaret Thatcher. Rumours of protests are floating about, and have been long expected. I'm no fan of Margaret Thatcher. She is often held up as a strong defender of freedom yet her Government never really lived up to what I'd expect freedom to mean. But even so I don't think she deserves the reputation she has been given nor does anyone deserve to have their funeral protested. Be they a young murdered man or an elderly former Prime Minister, a funeral is a time for someone's passing to be mourned. So talk of protests saddens me greatly.

But... the police, media and supporters of Thatcher must understand there must be a right to a peaceful protest, no matter how abhorrent it might be. No matter how disgusting, creepy and downright inhuman those who protest a funeral might be, they must have rights too. I hope that right is respected on Wednesday, although I hope ultimately those planning such crass acts see sense beforehand.

Remember protesters you share a tactic with the Westboro Baptist Church. Stay classy.


penwing said...

I'm torn over this issue, but I think there is a difference between a funeral which is a family event (like most of those WBC protest at would be if they didn't protest) and a funeral which is a public (for most practical purposes, a state funeral) event like Thatcher's will be.

Whether that difference then impacts on my views is still being considered, but I don't think you can necessarily equate WBC protests with anti-Thatcher protests...


Jae Kay said...

Though I agree there is a difference between a funeral with an official status (like Thatcher's) and those which are "private", the WBC don't turn up to just any old funeral. They turn up to notable, large scale funerals of the famous and newsworthy and I'd certainly described those funerals as "public" ones.

I don't really see a ethical difference between the two. Both are to mourn the dead which, in my eyes, means they are worthy of the same level of respect.

penwing said...

I'm still not sure, but the way I see it is that Thatcher's funeral is essentially a state funeral ("ceremonial", no bloody difference) saying that the nation is mourning her, the nation is grieved and the nation believes she is worthy of such. This would not be the case if, say, Elton John were to have a big star-studded funeral on a similar scale but would not be "ceremonial" or "state" funerals. I think this is the difference that I am trying to describe.

As such, I think the balance changes from protesting the funeral to protesting (at least in part) the state's involvement - and that, by it's nature, is tied to the funeral. I appreciate that a lot of the anger is probably still directed at Thatcher, but by putting that state approval to the funeral I think there is a possible legitimising argument. If there had, instead, been a private funeral and a public memorial I think the memorial would be the thing to target, not the funeral.

I know that WBC do protest big funerals, but they also protest small ones. These same arguments apply here though - what they protest is the personal, the private, not the state.


Paul Brownsey said...

Giving her what is as near as dammit a state funeral--the only funeral of a prime minister to be attended by the Queen apart from Churchill's, who led a national wartime government--is a way of proclaiming that Thatcher's values are Britain's values. So protest is justified in a way it wouldn't be if this were a private funeral.