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Court upholds speech rights of fired embalmer

The state’s highest court on Friday ruled that regulators violated an embalmer’s free speech rights when it stripped him of his license for making graphic comments in a newspaper article about his work with the bodies of cancer victims, babies, and overweight people.

Troy J. Schoeller’s license was revoked several years ago by the state board that regulates funeral directors and embalmers after it found that Schoeller’s comments in a 2006 Boston Phoenix article violated rules of conduct meant to protect “the integrity of the profession.”

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The Phoenix story quoted Schoeller saying, “I really hate embalming fat people” while describing fluids that leak from their bodies and comparing one baby’s boneless corpse to a “bear skin rug” as he explained the difficulties of preparing bodies for viewing after they had been in traumatic accidents.

Schoeller argued that the Board of Registration of Funeral Directors and Embalmers violated his free speech rights. Though graphic, all of his statements were accurate, and none identified any of the bodies.

The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court agreed, ruling the state board’s regulation prohibiting unprofessional or “undignified and salacious” remarks to be unconstitutional because “it restricts a substantial amount of free speech.”

“His comments described in detail the process of embalming the dead, an area recognized by the profession as one about which the public knows little and should be more informed,” Justice Fernande R.V. Duffly wrote in the court’s decision. “Although Schoeller spoke colloquially, using both graphic and crude terms in his descriptions of the challenges he faced as an embalmer, his comments convey that he took apparent pride in his skills.”

Amie Breton, a spokeswoman for the state Office of Consumer Affairs and Business Regulation, which oversees the state Division of Professional Licensure, said the funeral board will respect the court’s ruling, but was disappointed with the decision.

“In this case, we feel that the board did what it felt was appropriate to protect the integrity of the funeral services profession,” Breton said.

Schoeller, 35, of Allston, said the court’s ruling is a long-awaited validation. He said he had dreamed of being a specialeffects designer as a child, but was drawn to embalming after realizing “I could do makeup and reconstruction on people and I could also help out families at a really hard time.”

He worked for about four years as an embalmer in Florida before getting his license in Massachusetts in 1999. He recalled the satisfaction he felt whenever he prepared someone’s body for viewing by the family following a death.

“I loved the industry,” he said. “I’m an artist, and that was kind of like the art I did.”

But after the Phoenix article was published, he was fired from the funeral home where he worked and sanctioned by the Board of Registration of Funeral Directors and Embalmers.

He tried explaining that his comments had been made during a casual dinner with a reporter, following a more formal interview, and he didn’t realize he was being quoted.

No matter how crass his words may have been, Schoeller said, it was wrong of the state board to try to restrict his speech.

“No governing agency should be able to govern you to the point where you’re no longer able to talk to somebody,” said Schoeller, who now works as a biotechnician making medicines.

While he is happy about the ruling, Schoeller said he wasn’t yet sure if he would try to return to embalming.

Erin Ailworth can be reached at eailworth@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @ailworth.
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