Westboro Wins Before SCOTUS, As They Should Have

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Say whatever you want about Fred Phelps and his Westboro Baptist Church.

They won their right to protest, and I’m glad. It may be vile, but it’s free speech.

“Speech is powerful. It can stir people to action, move them to tears of both joy and sorrow, and– as it did here–inflict great pain,” Chief Justice John Roberts wrote. “On the facts before us, we cannot react to that pain by punishing the speaker.”

But I’m going to go a step further and say that I’m also glad they get to continue protesting.

Why would I be glad about a group of crazies continuing to spout anti-gay filth in incredibly insensitive settings?

Because they are a stimulus that forces everyone else to react.

Folks who are anti-gay have to respond to Westboro by clarifying they are not that anti-gay. But of course, they are! And so often, the distinction is made in regards to Westboro’s rhetoric, but not their message. Anti-gay opponents don’t want to be associated with “God hates fags,” but it’s amazing how many stop short of saying “God doesn’t hate fags.”

I’m not alone in feeling this way about Westboro. A group called Phags for Phelps promotes the impact WBC has as a catalyst for LGBT equality. Shirley Phelps-Roper, herself, has made the case that anyone who claims to disagree with WBC has no business opposing same-sex marriage. In other words, you either oppose homosexuality like WBC does or you don’t oppose it. It’s a pretty worthwhile challenge for other anti-gay folks to respond to.

Shirley also points out that there was not nearly the same kind of outrage to WBC until they started protesting military funerals. Are people actually bothered by the fact that WBC is anti-gay, or just the fact that they disrupt military funerals? You don’t have to support the Phelps clan to make some pretty compelling arguments about how folks respond to them.

Justice Alito is no exception. A sensitive soul, he offered the only dissent in the decision, asserting that WBC did impose real pain on the Snyder family, regardless of how many laws they obeyed in the process. In making his case that the pain was “irreparable,” he offered this paragraph (p. 7 of his dissent, citations omitted):

Other signs would most naturally have been understood as suggesting—falsely—that Matthew was gay. Homosexuality was the theme of many of the signs. There were signs reading “God Hates Fags,” “Semper Fi Fags,” “Fags Doom Nations,” and “Fag Troops.” Another placard depicted two men engaging in anal intercourse. A reasonable bystander seeing those signs would have likely concluded that they were meant to suggest that the deceased was a homosexual.

This paragraph was presented in the context of making the case that WBC “brutally attacked Matthew Snyder, and this attack… was almost certain to inflict injury.” Is Justice Alito implying, then, that to imply an individual is gay is an injurious attack against that individual’s character?

Justice Alito would be saying (and I think he is) that being gay is a bad thing. After all, his argument is intended to defend the military family, not LGBT people. How can we not conclude that Justice Alito is homophobic?

The Phelps clan certainly do some harmful things, and I’m not condoning them. In fact, I don’t think anybody is. But they’re going to keep doing what they do, and I think it’s important to focus on the positive. The Westboro Baptist Church is a litmus test for homophobia. They’re the one group who doesn’t sugarcoat their rhetoric, and so we should use that to our advantage.

You don’t have to like speech to appreciate the value of upholding free speech.

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There are 5 Comments to "Westboro Wins Before SCOTUS, As They Should Have"

  • Sean Santos says:

    I actually have thought exactly this way. I think that much of the opposition to the Phelps clan is misplaced. If there’s anything to object to, it’s that their message is often leveled against mourners at their most vulnerable; even then, they are within their rights.

    But I highly doubt that they are winning many people over. It’s far more likely that they’ve put a face to bigotry that makes it a much more palpable and obvious problem (sadly, they’ve highlighted the issue far better than the thousands of anti-LGBT hate crimes that have occurred at the same time as their small protests). No, overall they are more of a PR problem for social conservatives.

    There is, however, a disturbing argument made in connection with them, which is that a lot of people find themselves excused from being prejudiced as long as they aren’t as bad as the WBC. Specifically, I’ve spoken to some Christians who thought that they weren’t anti-LGBT as long as they weren’t as mean as the Phelps clan, as long as they thought that God loves us (except for that gay part). It’s this excuse of “You must be mistaking me for those people over there, but I can’t be that bad because I’m way better than them.”

    This is what shifting the Overton Window means; once a very extreme point of view becomes well-known, they shift the perceived “center” position towards them. Being moderately prejudiced is then the moderate position.

    All that said, I think that the net impact of the WBC is still positive for us. If nothing else, it has largely (within the mainstream) discredited any position which is openly hateful towards LGs. (I don’t know about Bs and Ts. We bisexuals just don’t get talked about as much, and I think that makes some of the weirder ideas end up as a higher percentage of the discourse. And the stupid fears and slurs regarding transsexuals are not challenged as much, or are challenged in a really backhanded way, as with distancing being gay from drag queens from actual transsexuals.)

  • Brian says:

    Other signs would most naturally have been understood as suggesting—falsely—that Matthew was blue-eyed. Blue eyes were the theme of many of the signs. There were signs reading “God Hates Blue eyes,” “Semper Fi Blue-eyes,” “Blue-eyes Doom Nations,” and “Blue-eyed Troops.” Another placard depicted two people with blue eyes at a fertility clinic. A reasonable bystander seeing those signs would have likely concluded that they were meant to suggest that the deceased had blue eyes.

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