Mother of fallen soldier petitions against funeral protesters

BY KATIE HEINE | MARCH 29, 2011 7:20 AM

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Protesters gathered outside the 2006 funeral of Patty Sourivong’s 20-year-old son, an Iowa City West High graduate who was killed in Iraq, including members of the controversial Westboro Baptist Church.

Though the Iowa City mother of three never had to see the protesters herself, she’s now working to make sure no other family has to experience their demonstrations.

Sourivong is collecting signatures in hopes of overturning a recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling allowing protests at military funerals. Justices ruled 8-1 earlier this month in Snyder v. Phelps to allow protests; the case stemmed from a funeral at which Westboro members also protested.

“I’m not trying to change the First Amendment, because I still agree with that,” said Sourivong, sitting in her home near a bouquet of flowers sent by a supporter. “But I feel the families have a right to grieve in peace.”

Though roughly 550 people had signed the petition as of Monday, local experts said the chances of overturning the Supreme Court decision are slim to none.

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University of Iowa Associate Professor Lyombe Eko, a free-speech expert in the School of Journalism and Mass Communication, said public opinion has no influence on the Supreme Court’s “expected” decision, because it has already passed the highest legal authority.

“The rights of the speaker take precedence over the feelings of the listener,” Eko said of American standards.

But Sourivong, who began gathering signatures in mid-March, said she intends to collect names until her petition is seen across the nation. Sourivong said she knows about petitions in South Dakota and California as well.

“It’s going to be tough to change their decision,” said Sourivong. “But someone’s got to try.”

Tim Hagle, a UI political-science associate professor, said any petition is unlikely to influence the Supreme Court, but turning to local legislators is an option.

There is a chance public input could cause local legislators to put something on the ballot, he said.
“Maybe laws will be strengthened or perhaps make it more explicit,” he said.

Sourivong said she plans to send the petition to local lawmakers as well as the U.S. Supreme Court.
After talking with a lawyer, Sourivong started working on a bill that would specifically prevent protesters from attending military funerals and also prohibit them from protesting on cemetery grounds.

“I specify gravesites because … if they make it just for funerals, then these people could come over to my son’s grave right now with their signs,” she said.

For now, Sourivong said, she’s focused on expanding the petition to reach more people. Though her husband would like to submit the signatures by Sept. 30 — the fifth anniversary of their son’s passing — Sourivong said she has no intentions of stopping there.

“I will still keep trying until I’m old and gray and buried in my casket myself,” Sourivong said. “I’m not going to stop until something changes.”

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