Freedom To Hate

Westboro Baptist Church may have won at the Supreme Court, but it's no moral victory

by Sean Bugg
Published on March 3, 2011, 2:50am | Comments

Some people make me sick.

Case in point, any member of the Fred Phelps clan who has been involved in the Westboro Baptist Church's ongoing campaign of hate-filled publicity stunts protesting the existence of LGBT people in America. They've become the face of anti-gay hate in the nation and have the dubious distinction of making ''God Hates Fags'' one of our culture's more regrettably recognizable political slogans.

But, naturally, they have the right to make me sick. And the Supreme Court has ruled to make it legal: Even the craziest, most vile, most vituperative beliefs can find shelter under the umbrella of the First Amendment.

News of the Supreme Court decision came down on Wednesday — after Metro Weekly's print news section was to press — a little burst of moral unease to start the day. No matter how much and how strongly I believe intellectually that Westboro Baptist has the right to do what it does, pictures of small children holding signs emblazoned with ''Fag Nation'' and stick figures simulating anal sex will always make me angry.

Which is, of course, the entire point. To get a reaction, to get attention, to cause a stir — it's what Westboro wants, and it's what I try not to give them.

I sometimes fail.

Case in point, another gay writer I know recently made mention of the Phelps clan and their protest of funerals, highlighting that the church had targeted Elizabeth Edwards, the Tucson shooting victims and soldiers. It was the protest of a straight soldier's funeral that led to the church standing before the Supreme Court to make a constitutional argument for hate.

As I e-mailed in a response, these evil, nasty, corrupt human beings have been protesting the funerals of gay men who died from violence and AIDS since the 1990s. But the mass culture only really got offended and legislatures got involved when the Phelpses started picketing the funerals of straight soldiers, because, you know, that's just a step too far.

And the feeling of anger I get in the face of that is, I know, something that makes me smaller on the inside. It's that little seed of hate that Fred Phelps has managed to place in me, that even though I work hard to keep it silent still occasionally springs out.

I've been watching the immediate reactions to the Supreme Court ruling and most people seem in agreement that the decision falls into the category of uncomfortable but correct. Some on the right — not all, or even most, by any means — have decried the ruling, favoring Justice Samuel Alito's lone dissent that, "Our profound national commitment to free and open debate is not a license for the vicious verbal assault that occurred in this case."

It is rather interesting to watch some of the people who have spent years decrying such things as campus speech codes and hate-crimes legislation suddenly come around to the idea that words can have power and impact beyond the eardrums — that words can certainly harm you. Though I doubt that the newfound principle will be applied by most of them beyond the issue immediately at hand.

But as uncomfortable as it makes me, as much as it stirs the anger I still hold over the past transgressions of Fred Phelps, I know that the Supreme Court made the correct decision, no matter how queasy it may make me feel. We simply need to remember: Having a right isn't the same as being right.


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