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NC Tightens Its Laws on Disorderly Conduct at Funerals

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No doubt in response to funeral protests by groups like Westboro Baptist Church, in 2006 NC amended its disorderly conduct statute, G.S. 14-288.4, adding a provision prohibiting disorderly conduct at a funeral. Under current law a person commits this offense when he or she:

(1) intentionally

(2) causes a public disturbance

(3) by engaging in conduct with the intent to impede, disrupt, disturb, or interfere with

(a) the orderly administration of any funeral or memorial service or family processional to such a service or

(b) the normal activities and functions in the facilities or buildings where a funeral or memorial service is taking place.

The statute expressly includes military funerals and services. G.S. 14-288.4(a)(8). It also provides that any of the following conduct occurring within the time period beginning one hour before the service and ending one hour after the service constitutes disorderly conduct:

  • displaying, within 300 feet of the ceremonial site or processional route, any visual image that conveys fighting words or actual or imminent threats of harm directed to any person or property associated with the event or processional route;
  • uttering, within 300 feet of the ceremonial site or processional route, loud, threatening, or abusive language or singing, chanting, whistling, or yelling with or without noise amplification in a manner that would tend to impede, disrupt, disturb, or interfere with a funeral, memorial service, or processional route; or
  • attempting to block or blocking pedestrian or vehicular access to the ceremonial site or location being used for a funeral or memorial.

Id.

This year the NC General Assembly tightened these restrictions, effective for offenses committed on or after December 1, 2013. S.L. 2013-6. First, the statute was amended to cover conduct occurring within a wider range of time. As amended, the statute will apply to conduct that occurs within a window of time beginning two hours prior to the event and ending two hours after. Second, the statute was amended to cover a larger geographic area. As amended, the statute applies to conduct within 500 feet of the relevant location.

The 2013 amendments also increased punishment for this offense. A first offense will be a Class 1 misdemeanor (it’s currently a Class 2 misdemeanor). A second offense will be a Class I felony (it’s currently a Class 1 misdemeanor). A third or subsequent offense will be a Class H felony (it’s currently a Class I felony).

I can guess your question: Wasn’t there something about this being unconstitutional? Sort of. In Snyder v. Phelps, 562 U.S. ___, 131 S. Ct. 1207 (2011), the United States Supreme Court held that the First Amendment shielded members of Westboro Baptist from tort liability for picketing near a soldier’s funeral held in Maryland. A jury held members of the Church liable for millions of dollars in damages for picketing near a soldier’s funeral service with signs that reflected the church’s view that the United States is overly tolerant of sin and that God kills American soldiers as punishment. Id. at 1214. Although Maryland now has a criminal statute in effect restricting picketing at funerals, the statute was not in effect at the time of the picketing in Snyder. Id. at 1218. Noting that statute and pointing out that other jurisdictions have enacted similar provisions, the Court stated:

To the extent these laws are content neutral, they raise very different questions from the tort verdict at issue in this case. Maryland’s law, however, was not in effect at the time of the events at issue here, so we have no occasion to consider how it might apply to facts such as those before us, or whether it or other similar regulations are constitutional.

Id.

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