Watching Death

Missouri’s first execution in 17 months is Wednesday morning. We’ll be sending Jessica Machetta to cover it. She has never covered an execution. Neither has our newest reporter, Ryan Famuliner. Brent Martin and Bob Priddy have made melancholy journeys to prisons in eastern Missouri more than 25 times between them to serve as media witnesses.

Brent remarked a few weeks ago that he gets more questions as a reporter about covering executions than anything else he’s ever covered–and that includes the 1993 floods that he covered while working in St. Joseph, one of the biggest targets of the Missouri River that year.

We cover executions because we represent the people of Missouri in whose name this most severe criminal penalty is administered. We cover executions because the inmates have committed crimes in all parts of the state and the people we serve in those areas have a particular interest in the conclusion of this local tragedy that happened so many years ago.

We don’t cover them because we want to. We cover them because we have to.

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There’s more than one way to skin a cat

The cat, in this case, is Topeka minister Fred Phelps whose family’s protests at the funerals of dead soldiers have been met with massive public revulsion, special efforts to shield mourners from Phelps messages (basically that American soldiers are dying in combat because God is punishing the nation for tolerating homosexuality), and fears that the demonstrations could lead to a violent incident.

The United States Supreme Court has agreed to decide whether a soldier’s family can sue Phelps and his group. It’s a case in which the family of a Maryland soldier has sued Phelps for invasion of privacy and intentional infliction of emotional distress. The family won almost $11 million dollars in a judgment against Phelps. But a federal appeals court has thrown out that verdict saying that Phelps’ protest is protected by the First Amendment guarantee of free speech.

Missouri has fought this battle with Phelps. Missouri lost.

Missouri’s law limited access to the immediate funeral area by protesters. It was passed after Phelps’ group protested at a 2005 funeral of a soldier in St. Joseph. The state law forbade picketing “in front or about” a funeral location or procession and said demonstrations could not occur within a football field’s distance of the procession or location. Shirley Phelps-Rooper, the daughter of Fred Phelps, filed a lawsuit challenging the law. The suit reached the U. S. Supreme court last June and the court refused to hold a hearing on a lower court ruling that the United States government has “no compelling interest” in protecting people from unwanted messages in public areas. That ruling quoted a 1999 decision from the federal circuit court of appeals for this district:

“We recognize that lines have to be drawn, and we choose to draw the line in such a way as to give the maximum possible protection to speech, which is protected by the express words of the Constitution.”

Missouri’s law has not been declared unconstitutional. But the court’s decision means it cannot be enforced unless its constitutionality is upheld.

“The public is served by the preservation of constitutional rights,” said the appeals court decision that was allowed to stand by the U. S. Supreme Court.

The federal court in Richmond, Virginia has ruled in the Maryland case that the messages put forth by the Phelps family is “highly offensive” and “repugnant,” but is protected by the First Amendment because it “intended to spark debate about issues.”

One factor in the Maryland case is a posting on the Phelps church website that attacked the father of the Maryland soldier for raising his son a Catholic and supporting his military career. The website claimed the father, Albert Synder, raised his son “for the devil,” and taught his son “to defy his creator.”

Courts over time have ruled that free speech does have its limits. The most famous phrase, often quoted, that “shouting ‘FIRE;’ in a crowded theater” is cited as an example of speech that does not deserve protection.

The First Amendment is not about protecting popular speech, for it needs no protection. History gives us numerous examples of unpopular speech that changed our country because those who spoke were protected by that First Amendment. Courts have been called up on to draw the line between unpopular speech and irresponsible speech. Libel and slander laws, which themselves call for court interpretation from time to time, are considered a citizen’s protection against irresponsible speech.

But what happens when a church personally attacks the father of a dead soldier and disrupts the family’s ability to mourn its loss?

That’s for the United States Supreme Court to consider.

We’ll be watching to see if the ruling gives any new life to the Missouri law.

Another step toward openness

sc-webcastThe Cape Girardeau Southeast Missourian took an important step for open government this morning when it did a live webcast of a Missouri Supreme Court hearing. Congratulations to the staff that came to Jefferson City, starting at oh-dark-thirty to get here on time.

Congratulations to the court staff that worked with them to get the webcast set up. Congratulations to Chief Justice Ray Price and the other members of the court for deciding on short notice to let the webcast take place as a test. The newspaper has archived the video coverage.

It’s not gripping drama (appeals court hearings don’t have witnesses and final arguments and juries),but it is our court system at work. This particular case had the additional value of being an appeal of a ruling about the state’s open meetings/open records law. The average person is likely to find it somewhat tedious to watch. But the important thing is that the Missourian provided a window on the political system that people can look through and learn from.

The new technology that we use in the news business allows citizens to see watch their government at work in real time. The wheels of government are often noisy and sloooooow. Our own Learfield web guru, Steve Mays, has been live streaming a few legislative committee hearings during this session. The feeds have been fairly primitive and haven’t used the more sophisticated but very affordable camera that the newspaper used today. But they’ve been important steps we’ve taken to continue to let Missourians see and hear their government at work and to help Missourians understand the political process is human and often not clearly black-and-white.

He says one of the things the experience has taught him is the value of reporters who sit through those lengthy meetings and then distill that hour or so of discussion into print or broadcast stories that capture the essential elements of the event so the public understands the issues. Those of us in the Missourinet newsroom hope the company invests in the resources we need to do more of the work that Steve has been doing and that the Southeast Missourian did today.

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