Nothing is more appalling than the sight of the Rev. Fred Phelps and his tiny band of followers from the fringe Westboro Baptist Church protesting outside military funerals.

Members of the armed services who die in the line of duty deserve everyone’s respect, and their families should be able to mourn their loss in dignity.

It would be better if Phelps or his followers, mostly members of his immediate family, chose to find some other way to spread their hateful message, but we don’t need a broad rollback of out First Amendment rights to stop them.

Unfortunately, Sen. Olympia Snowe and a bipartisan A-list of senators have proposed legislation that could do just that. The Sanctity for Eternal Rest for Veterans, or SERVE Act, would amend existing service funeral protections by doubling the exclusion zone around the services to 300 feet and increasing the buffer around the procession route from 300 to 500 feet.

While that the change is just a matter of degree, it raises questions that are hard to answer. If veterans deserve this level of respect, why not police officers or political leaders who also may have died in the line of duty? If 500 feet is good, why not 1,000 feet, or a mile, or 10 miles? Why not ban this type of offensive protest all together?

Because freedom of speech is protected by the Constitution, that’s why.

In a recent Supreme Court decision that upheld the church’s right to protest, Chief Justice John Roberts acknowledged that the protests are hurtful and add little, if anything, to the public discourse, but they should not be banned.

“As a nation we have chosen a different course — to protect even hurtful speech on public issues to ensure that we do not stifle public debate,” Roberts wrote.

In reality, there is no widespread problem with disruptions of military funerals. We’re talking about just one small group, and attempts to write federal law to silence its members gives them an even bigger platform. It also could create unforeseeable complications for legitimate protesters at some later date.

Snowe says she was inspired to sponsor her legislation by a Maine high school student, who was deeply offended by reports he heard about the funeral protests.

This might have been a good opportunity for a respected official such as Snowe to offer a civics lesson about the importance of protecting our basic rights, even when it hurts.

The truth about free speech is that offensive speech has just as much protection as the popular kind, and speech perceived by the majority to be offensive is the only kind that ever really needs protection.

It would be better if no one ever took hold of a half-baked idea of divine justice and protested outside a military funeral.

But since people do, we should let them have their say, while standing in sympathy with the families of the men and women who have given their lives so the rest of us can live with freedoms like these.

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