Westboro Protesters Are Back For More

When the United States Constitution was first amended to include the right to free speech and assembly, I do not think the authors of the document expected these freedoms to be used by oppressors. Unfortunately, in our society today, they have been.

The recent and tragic shooting in Arizona, in which a gunman killed six and wounded 14 others –  one of them being United States Representative Gabrielle Giffords, who will luckily recover from her trauma incident – has once again brought media attention to the Westboro Baptist Church protesters  as they picketed the public funeral with their hateful and hurtful signs.

For anyone who is not familiar with this group, the Westboro Baptist Church originated in 1955 in Topeka, Kansas and is headed by Fred Phelps. They are infamous for picketing military funerals with signs like “Thank God for Dead Soldiers” and “God Hates Fags.” They have an extremist stance against homosexuality and have spread all across the country gaining media attention for their public protests.

Their main goal in doing this protest is to preach the “true gospel” according to their official website, www.godhatesfags.com. This particularly enlightening post outlines their mission in quite a contradicting way: “WBC engages in daily peaceful sidewalk demonstrations opposing the homosexual lifestyle of soul-damning, nation-destroying filth. We display large, colorful signs containing Bible words and sentiments.” Some of these sentiments include their trademark “God Hates Fags,” and others that you can look up on your own time.

Now, I may not be the most well versed in Biblical terminology but I am pretty sure that none of these “sentiments” are found anywhere in the Bible, though there may be a loophole that displays each word separately and they have taken their own poetic liberty with constructing their phrases.

The worst part of all this is that it is perfectly legal. As long as what they do stays peaceful, the government has no control over their actions, except to keep the protesters at a safe distance, meaning across the street.

For most of the WBC’s protests, the actual funeral has no meaning to them. They believe any death is simply God condemning his sinners to an eternity in hell and see it as a moment to celebrate instead of mourn.

But at what cost? Their celebrations are obviously hurting other people. In college, if one student were to put up hateful signs, they would be accused of some sort of hate crime. Why is this situation any different? These hate signs are displayed publicly and are hurting people. Why are these Westboro Baptist Church protestors allowed to abuse their First Amendment right given to us to stand against this type of oppression?

And this is not simply reserved for the adults of this church. The protesters are made up of the entire congregation, children included. These children are brought up in an environment of hate, only knowing the teachings of their church and their parents and never having the freedom to explore different views and ideas. In this closed-off world, these kids can only suffer, never prosper, and will never truly be able to blend in with society after this extremist brainwashing.

It is hard to say that what these protestors are doing is legally wrong, however. Just a few months ago, UCI had its own incident with free speech through chalk. No matter what the messages were, campus police would still crack down hard on the “vandals.” I shudder to think what would happen if someone was writing hateful messages instead of motivational phrases.
Unfortunately, the most we can do in retaliation is picket ourselves. This group has sparked movements across the country holding up signs of peace (and signs condemning the Westboro Protesters). These protests, though small, are clear signs of the power that free speech can give us, the power that comes from standing together in a cause we can all believe in.

These people, though hateful and uncaring, can serve a purpose. They can become a symbol to rally around, a reason to fight back in the name of free speech. We need to take this horrid display and turn it into an opportunity to show the world that these people are on the fringe of the fringe, that this is only an extremely small portion of the United States.

The rest of us can show what free speech can really accomplish. We have the numbers and the power to fight back, free speech versus free speech. And I cannot speak for anyone else, but I would place my money on the signs that leave out ignorance and promote peace instead.

Sara Naor is a first-year film and media studies major. She can be reached at snaor@uci.edu.