Democrats criticize Cuccinelli on picketing case

Story by Chris Graham

Virginia Democrats are howling over Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli’s refusal to file a legal brief in support of the family of a fallen U.S. soldier suing a fundamentalist church that uses military funerals as a backdrop to protest gay rights.

“I have a real problem with anyone who wants to use or cloak themselves in the First Amendment and try to interrupt a funeral of a fallen soldier. Families who pay the ultimate sacrifice are entitled to a little privacy and dignity. And the attorney general, as far as I’m concerned, don’t insult everybody by paying lip service when you refuse to get into the game,” said Ward Armstrong, a Southside state delegate who is the minority leader in the Virginia House of Delegates.

“What’s remarkable about that statement is the utter hypocrisy of it,” state Democratic Party executive director David Mills said. “For the attorney general to decide to become a First Amendment champion now is worse than disingenuous – it’s selective justice. True freedom is predicated on a uniform application of the law toward all citizens. Attorney General Cuccinelli sees nothing wrong with a hypocritical and grossly subjective application of the law, and that practice constitutes a greater risk to our freedom than any single court case.”

Cuccinelli is one of two state attorneys general to decline the opportunity to file what is called an amicus curiae brief in the Snyder v. Phelps case. Albert Snyder is the father of Matthew Snyder, a soldier killed in Iraq whose funeral was picketed by members of the Westboro (Kan.) Baptist Church and its leader, Fred Phelps.

A statement from the attorney general’s communication director, Brian Gottstein, “deplores” the “absolutely vile and despicable acts of Fred Phelps and his followers.” “But the consequences of this case had to be looked at beyond what would happen just to Phelps and his followers,” Gottstein said.

“Families of the fallen have the right to peacefully and respectfully say goodbye to their loved ones,” countered Joseph Harmon, the chair of the Virginia Democratic Party’s Veterans and Military Families Caucus. “The attorney general should have put his support behind these families, just as 48 other attorneys general did around the nation. Now Virginia’s military families have more support from Attorneys General in other states than they do from their own.”

Armstrong, an attorney, pointed out that “not all speech is protected.”“We do not allow people to yell fire! in a crowded theater. We do not let people walk into a classroom and disrupt a teacher trying to teach a lesson. We do not allow tobacco companies to advertise cigarettes on television. Speech is regulated, because not all speech should be unfettered and free,” Armstrong said.

Also at issue is the decision from Cuccinelli not to act in this case vis-a-vis the course that he has taken with taxpayer dollars being used to investigate a former UVa. climate researcher on what many feel is an academic and political witch hunt.

“It’s a bit disingenuous for the attorney general to claim that he is the protector of free speech when he is currently seeking to quell the free speech of a professor at the University of Virginia,” Armstrong said.

“The case could set a precedent that could severely curtail certain valid exercises of free speech,” Gottstein said. “If protestors – whether political, civil rights, pro-life, or environmental – said something that offended the object of the protest to the point where that person felt damaged, the protestors could be sued. It then becomes a very subjective and difficult determination as to when the line is crossed from severely offensive speech to that which inflicts emotional distress.”

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