Free speech advocate Fred Phelps, the once leader and founder of the infamous Westboro Baptist Church has died at the age of 84. Phelps, whom the Church allegedly excommunicated last summer, is best remembered for his efforts in spreading his Church’s message that blames homosexuality for the ills of the nation. Notably, his Church is known to picket the funerals of U.S. soldiers killed in action, with signs reading “God Hates Fags” and “Thank God for Dead Soldiers.” Though his activities have been universally condemned, Phelps pushed the limits of free speech to express himself, revealing disdain many Americans share for certain speech activity.
Phelps entered public life as a civil rights attorney, attacking Jim Crow laws and racial discrimination in Kansas. By 1985, he had been disbarred in both Federal and Kansas courts, owing to unfounded allegations he made against a court reporter and several Federal court judges. In the 1990s, he and his family, as part of the Westboro Baptist Church, began protesting homosexuality in Topeka. The protests eventually spread across the nation, and included funerals for AIDS victims, and even the funeral for Matthew Shephard, a gay college student killed in a 1998 anti-gay attack. After the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, the Church began protesting the funerals for U.S. soldiers killed in the war. The 2005 protest of U.S. Marine Matthew Snyder’s funeral, led Snyder’s father to file a lawsuit against Phelps, which reached the U.S. Supreme Court, who ruled in 2011 that Snyder had no tort action because the protests constituted free speech.
Phelps and his Church’s activities have led to the passage of a number of laws restricting free speech, revealing how America’s attitude toward different views outweighs its value of free speech. Though several State legislatures banned protests within a certain distance from cemeteries during funerals, the most draconian passage involved that of the entire nation. In 2006, all but three members of the House of Representatives and the entire Senate passed a bill, signed into law by President George W. Bush as the Respect for America’s Fallen Heroes Act, which banned protests within 300 feet of National cemeteries, an hour before and after funerals. A violation of this law could result in one year imprisonment and fines of up to $100,000. In this matter, only Representatives Ron Paul, David Wu, and Barney Frank, had the wisdom to see how destructive the bill could be to free speech. Sadly, in order to avoid being exposed to the message of Phelps and his Church, America surrendered some of its freedom.
Now, with Fred Phelps dead, many Americans rejoice, further condemning a man, who faced property vandalism, malicious prosecution, and countless threats of violence, all for expressing his views in a legal and peaceful manner. Views, wrapped in intolerance, which encountered even greater intolerance from a nation claiming to espouse free speech.
Though Phelps, in his life, grossly violated Graham’s Hierarchy of Disagreement, he also revealed this nation’s inclination to assault free speech with which it disagrees. A troubling notion for free speech advocates.