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By GENE POLICINSKI
First Amendment Center
By now there likely are few Americans who don’t recognize the names of a tiny Topeka, Kan., church and of the family that makes up most of its members — Westboro Baptist Church and the Phelps family.
For years, various Phelpses have been demonstrating at funerals — most notably at services for U.S. military service members killed in combat overseas — to condemn America’s acceptance of homosexuality and other “sins.”
In early March, the family won an appeal at the U.S. Supreme Court in a case involving a lawsuit brought by the father of a Marine who died in 2006.
The 8-1 decision supported public protest that involves issues of public concern. Margie Phelps — the family’s lead lawyer in successfully arguing the case — appeared recently in New York City at a convention of college journalists, in a standing-room-only discussion that I moderated.
The day was not without its own protests: Phelps and other family members demonstrated earlier near the 9/11 ground zero, and some students held their own protest against Westboro outside the convention hotel.
Some students wanted to know: Why hear Phelps’ message at all? Doesn’t that just give more her more exposure?
From a First Amendment view, there’s an easy answer. Americans need to know what Westboro has to say, if only the better to speak in opposition.
That’s a basic principle of those 45 words that set out our basic freedoms.
All five freedoms were active during that discussion: robust free speech by Phelps and her questioners, in front of a free press, about freely arrived-at religious beliefs held by a small minority despite opposition from a large majority.
And both Phelps and her opposition used the freedoms of assembly and petition.
Beyond that, it was a chance to hear Phelps and to experience firsthand the group’s direct, blunt and confrontational style.
What did we learn about Westboro and its approach that day?
The church considers America doomed, without possibility of redemption, and expects it to be destroyed by God soon; that U.S. “soldiers are dying for our sins”; and that Westboro pickets funerals because families, government, the public and the news media have turned them into what Phelps called “patriotic pep rallies ... massive public platforms,” not private ceremonies.
We also heard that there are places Westboro would not take its protests. “We wouldn’t go inside” a funeral service, block entrances or exits, or, if you’re a mourner, go “up in your grill,” Phelps said.
She said 100 feet from a funeral service was a reasonable distance for protesters to observe - much closer than the 500 to 1,000 feet generally provided for in many new state laws enacted in Westboro’s wake.
Margie Phelps figuratively got to set up her church’s “stand” in the marketplace of ideas, hawk her wares and see whether anyone stopped to
hear or buy her message. In doing so, Westboro joins a long line of
others who would reform, rebuke or reject society. The line includes
those whose protests have brought about positive change in areas ranging from child-safety laws to women’s rights to civil rights.
It includes those who have seriously debated public issues from taxes to abortion to war.
The Supreme Court’s ruling did not endorse Westboro’s crass tactics or accept its warning of divine wrath.
But the Court majority did strongly affirm the First Amendment right of all of us to be heard in the public square — even when, as Phelps said about her group’s situation, it’s 310 million Americans against 50 or so members of her family.
And the Court’s message is one we all ought to cheer.
Gene Policinski is senior vice president and executive director of the First Amendment Center, 1207 18th Ave. S., Nashville, Tenn., 37212. Web: www.firstamendmentcenter.org. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.