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Court Strikes Down Missouri Law Regulating Speech Outside Houses Of Worship

A federal appeals court panel on Monday struck down part of a Missouri law that prohibits "profane discourse" outside of churches and other houses of worship.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Missouri filed the challenge to the 2012 Missouri House of Worship Protection Act on behalf of SNAP, the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests. The group regularly hands out pamphlets outside churches urging parishioners to beware of abusive clergy members.

The three-judge panel of the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals agreed that the state went too far in regulating free speech.

"To be sure, the district court judge in this case took a different view," says Eugene Volokh, a law professor at the University of California, Los Angeles. "He said the restriction was content-neutral, but I think that was pretty clearly wrong and that's why the panel unanimously reversed."

Volokh runs a First Amendment Amicus Brief Clinic, which files "friend of the court" briefs on free speech issues. In this case, he and his students prepared a brief on behalf of the Thomas More Society, a conservative Catholic legal firm, in support of SNAP.

"So I think a lot of groups, conservative and liberal, agree that speech protection, if it's diminished for some, will end up diminished for others," Volokh says.

For example, Volokh says a church might want to preserve the right to protest outside an abortion clinic.

Charles Haynes of the Religious Freedom Education Project, at the Newseum in Washington, D.C., says there's no protection for offensive speech under the First Amendment.

"This is not interfering with the right of people to practice their faith," Haynes says. "It is, however, saying people who practice their faith or who want to protest are all free to express their views in the public square."

Neither Haynes nor Volokh expects Missouri to appeal the case. A provision of the Missouri House of Worship Protection Act that prohibits physical intrusion into a church still stands.

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