Fred Phelps and Free Speech

A question from the e-mail:

Your opinion has always shown to be thoughtful and expressed very well, even for those few instances where I disagree with you. For that reason, and I know request week is over, that I feel obliged to seek your own particular view on something. Recently, a lot of attention has centered on Mr. Fred Phelps. Several states have begun legislation to ban his protesting at the funerals of soldiers. A recent article, which was submitted at discusses the legal implications of the legislation and the precedence for and against it.

I always have respected the right to free speech, despite whether I agree with the protester. However, being a soldier myself, I find the fact of Mr Phelps protesting funerals of soldiers and causing such grief on their families to be horrible. The personal freedom of Phelps vs the right of the families is a delicate one with the right to privacy and speech both threatened by a situation such as this one.

So, basically, what do you think? Is this man invading the families’ rights? Your opinion would be much appreciated.

First off, as a procedural note, you don’t have to wait until a request week to ask me about my thoughts on topics — shoot me off an e-mail any time. Every time someone suggests a topic, that’s an entry where I don’t have to wonder what I’m going to write about. And that makes me happy.

Now, on to Fred Phelps: Personally I think Fred Phelps is a rat-bag son of a bitch, and if someone decided that pummelling the bastard into a coma was worth a stint in jail, I wouldn’t shed a single tear for Phelps, and would possibly bake the assailant some cookies. Having said that, I’ve also said that I believe the best test of free speech is one’s willingness to let the most odious person you know shout vile crap at the top of his lungs. Phelps is easily one of the most vile people around, and Lord knows he shouts a lot of crap.

My own feeling on the matter is similar to Eugene Volokh’s in the article linked to above (which is on the National Review site, not on the site, although I’m sure it was indeed linked to there). I think it’s reasonable for states and/or communities to legislate some distance between the funeral and the protestors, but I think you have to let them protest. Volokh worries particularly about expanding the home-based ban on protesting (carved out in Frisby v. Schultz) to apply to funerals because of the slippery slope problems it entails, and I would have to agree with that — it’s one thing for a presumption of peace in one’s home, but it’s another at a funeral in what is essentially an open and public space, and being laid to rest isn’t the same as being at home. I see the slippery slope here as being pretty slippery.

From a legal point of view, as much as Phelps disgusts me, and regardless of how much I look forward to him and his odious clutch of followers feculently rotting in Satan’s rectum for all eternity some time in the geologically near future, I don’t see how you can deny him his right to protest. However, there is nothing to say that Phelp’s protests can’t and shouldn’t be counteracted, and indeed this has been something that’s been done. For example, a group of motorcycle riders known as the Patriot Guard Riders attends the services of fallen service members (at the invitation of the families), and shield the families thought the clever use of flags, songs and motorcyles. Makes me want to go out and buy a motorcycle, it does.

Is Fred Phelps invading the privacy of these grieving families? Of course he is; that’s his intent. And Phelps, while being a tightly-puckered sphincter of pure hate, is also not exactly stupid; he knows what he can get away with. No matter what restrictions are placed on funeral protests, Phelps and the babbling pack of fecal smears whom he claims as followers will sit right at the legal edge and do their thing. Short of their bus careening wildly off the Interstate on their way back to Topeka, crushing the lot of them into a howling mass of insensate tissue, their souls pulled screaming toward Hell, there’s little that will stop them.

What is heartening is that people like the Patriot Riders and others will show up on their own dime and stand to remind the families of the fallen that the vast majority of Americans, whatever their political beliefs or feelings about the current conflict, honor the service these men and women have given to their country and the sacrifices that they made — and that the vast majority of Americans stand with the families of these fallen, and grieve for what has been lost. That’s why Fred Phelps loses every time he shows up. There are more good people than people like him, and they’re happy to show up to make that point. And that’s a fine use of free speech, I think.

32 Comments on “Fred Phelps and Free Speech”

  1. “how much I look forward to him and his odious clutch of followers feculently rotting in Satan’s rectum for all eternity some time in the geologically near future”

    “Phelps and the babbling pack of fecal smears whom he claims as followers”

    “crushing the lot of them into a screaming mass of insensate tissue, their souls pulled screaming toward Hell”

    It’s good to see a writer enjoying himself.

  2. Ooh, I LOVE the name-calling. Thank you.

    You know, I have mixed feelings about the Patriot Riders. What they’re doing is great. I’m glad they’re doing it. But what Phelps is doing is exactly the same kind of thing he’s been doing for years, first to PWAs and then gay people in general. But no crowds of motorcycle riders then. At best, there may be a couple dozen liberal church people from the local community.

    So, I’m left in the uncomfortable position of feeling less effusive about a really good thing because other people don’t get the really good thing.

  3. Here’s one thought from a “Sort of fundementalist” who happens to wonder if there is a special spot in Hell for Rev. Phelps: Is it possible to have him and his louts arrested not for picketing but for tresspassing? Or does he only target funerals on public land? Seems that if the cemetary were private property, the owners would be well within their rights to eject any troublemakers, and call the police to have anyone who stays around arrested.

  4. Kenneth, as a queer boy myself who’s seen Phelps and his [cough] “pack of fecal smears” [snicker] in person, I know what you mean. On the other hand, those “couple dozen liberal church people” (or the equivalent) were there. And that was a good thing too.

    Also, while I’d be right behind John carrying baked goods into jail for a theoretical Phelps assailant, I like to think if I was able to prevent the pummelling, I would.

    No claim to sainthood by me, though … I wouldn’t be baking anything for Phelps followers, whether in jail or in the hospital. They can bake their own damn cookies.

  5. Mad Scientist Matt: Phelps and his clan have been doing this for decades, and many of them have legal training. As John said, they know exactly what they can get away with.

  6. To elaborate on Bearpaw’s point, part of Phelps’ schtick (the guy’s a disbarred lawyer) is to intentionally provoke people into responses that he can sue them for. This guy doesn’t even respect his own hate, using it in cheap attempts to enrich himself through litigation! What a shitstain.

    Phelps was slated to come to Austin at one point, and I and other members of the local Atheist Community were all prepped and ready for the counterdemonstration. But he never turned up, I think citing bad weather. God must have been fed up that day too. [wink]

  7. Back when Fred Phelps’s attention was directed at events entailed by the killing of Matthew Shepard, Matt’s friend Romaine Patterson devised Angel Action as a countermeasure. Activists wore homespun angel costumes with 10-foot wide wings, supported by a frame of PVC pipe. They stood before Phelps’s crew, effectively blocking them from view.

  8. As John said, they know exactly what they can get away with.

    Actually, one of their crew has repeatedly been arrested for assault, and others have been nabbed for misdemeanor assault for spitting on people. They might know exactly what they can get away with, but sticking to what they can get away with .. not so much.

  9. Kenneth, I had the exact same thought when I first started hearing about the Patriot Riders. I think it is great that these families have these guys looking out for them and trying to ensure a peaceful funeral for their family member. However, I wondered how likely it would be that those Patriot Riders would show up at the local Planned Parenthood or women’s clinic to protect those women from the same type of protesters when they tried to go inside for family planning advice or abortions. My conclusion, not very likely at all.

    Of course, as pointed out above, there are those that do protect those women and perhaps it would be best to allow each subset to protect its own. But, damn, just think what people could accomplish if they got together and agreed to try to snuff out this type of fundamentalism!

  10. Here’s a thought: maybe the way to stop Phelps isn’t through legislation, but a general agreement throughout the press never to give the man and his assholytes a single line of coverage anywhere, ever again.

    It’s obvious that they’re picking their targets for sensationalism, so with no one outside the neighborhood noticing they’d probably dissipate. His real motives here seem pretty transparent; a big countersensation with flag-waving motorcycle riders and journalists deriding his name must strike him as incredible success. Really: protesting military funerals because the Iraq debacle is our punishment for homosexuality? It doesn’t ring true to me that even a crazy person would come up with that logic.

    So yeah, it’s the same old “Ignore him and he’ll go away thing.” Only in the case of someone this egregious, ignoring him takes a concerted, carefully organized effort with much communication.

  11. Courtney:
    Of course, as pointed out above, there are those that do protect those women and perhaps it would be best to allow each subset to protect its own. But, damn, just think what people could accomplish if they got together and agreed to try to snuff out this type of fundamentalism!

    They’d escalate the arms race, I suspect, and draw bigger crowds of fundamentalists, who’d use it as evidence of an organized liberal threat to Christian values. Rather than helping, I think there’s a chance that it would make the conflict bigger and more public, drawing more of the middle into it.

    Somewhere, someone you wouldn’t like very much is reading this blog thread and taking notes. Perhaps on Sunday, your phrase “…snuff out this type of fundamentalism!” will be cried out from a pulpit somewhere, firing a congregation into frenzy and strengthening their conviction that they, the lambs of God, have enemies who want to destroy them.

    Which probably wasn’t quite what you meant. Or maybe it was, I don’t know. I’m just sayin’.

  12. Phelps has been protesting at gay funerals for something like 20 years. The asshole and his friends have been out there for a very long time now.

    I do believe in free speech and peaceful protest, but Phelps and crew walk way over the line of free speech to a particularly gross form of harassment.

    I think what the Catholics, Mormons, Orthodox Jews, conservative Islamics teach about gay people and women to be completely odious. It’s certainly tempting to invade a religious service and scream at people who teach and enforce homophobia and sexism.

    But, that too would be harassment and it would help to deny other people their rights to free exercise of religion. As tempting as it would be, I would never do that.

    I guess I’m just too rational for my own good, and expect brainless-wonders like Phelps to be rational. But, if they were rational, they wouldn’t be harassing people at funerals.

  13. Oops, forgot something:

    I think what the fundies, Catholics, Mormons, Orthodox Jews, conservative Islamics teach about gay people and women to be completely odious. It’s certainly tempting to invade a religious service and scream at people who teach and enforce homophobia and sexism.

    There, that’s better!

  14. For what its worth, I AM a Patriot Guard Rider and an Army veteran circa 1969-1972. (I’m also a CPA and a healthcare administrator, but those are topics for another time.) The Patriot Guard Riders are, for the most part, a veteran organized and maned (and womaned, mustn’t be unPC) group that was formed to protect veterans and their families. There is nothing like the sound of multiple Harley’s to drowned out “a babbling pack of fecal smears”. I LOVE that kind of talk. I am proud of our organization and what we try to accomplish. There are many sides to some questions, but there are also some questions that are either right or wrong. What Phelps does is wrong. I’m glad I have the ability and the group backing to try to make it right.

  15. Thanks for the giggles late in the evening. FWIW, I live somewhat nearby and will be driving up (on 4 wheels, not 2) to join in the blocking of the buttheads. After venting about this subject earlier in the week I was pleased to be able to back up what I’d said.

  16. Way back when, these hell-bound bigots “protested” at my high school in central WI. I recall having much fun sexually assaulting one of the protestors holding up some anti-gay sign with a fierce grab of the ass and asking if he wanted some love. Note I’m a straight male of a rather physically intimidating appearance (minority, 6’4″, 220+ lbs). He just gave me a fierce look and accused me of supporting the homosexual agenda, but in not quite so nice words.

  17. For what it’s worth, I’d probably support a legal decision that a good punch in the nose qualifies as a protected form of free speech.

    A’course, I also support socially-sanctioned, mutually consentual duelling as a form of free speech, so I may be a bit outside the mainstream on this one. Wouldn’t be the first time.

  18. Steve Eley,
    I have to disagree with you on what Fred Phelp’s real motives are. I think his real motives are very simple: to cause pain and suffering in others. What I’ve read about the man leads me to believe he’s only using sensationalism as a means to that end, and he’s not going to stop trying to cause pain even if deprived of that particular means. Fred Phelps isn’t going to go away. In Nazi Germany he would have been an extermination camp guard. It is heartening to see that even “fire and brimstone” Christians recognize that there is something seriously wrong with the man. The tragedy is that he is allowed near children.

    Unfortunately, while we may understand intellectually that there is something wrong with the man, when he is screaming on a street corner his targets can’t help but see a human being rather than some malformed monstrosity.

    Much as the demonic imagery fits Fred Phelps, I think the most appropriate fate for his blasted soul is not Hell, but nonexistence.

  19. I understand your concern about a blanket legislation to provent protestors from doing their protesting at funerals in general. When my son was killed in Iraq, there were no Patriot Riders at the time. The service they provide greiving family members is wonderful. However, we are talking about servicemen and women here. They are the ones who protect our freedom of speach. And, what is the point in protesting a funeral anyway? I personally am tired of bending over backwards to accomodate every nitwit and crackpot just because they believe they have a right to cause other people grief and discomfort. I wish the American people would scrutinize these protestors as closely as they now scrutinize the actions of servicemen and women in Iraq. And my son, a field medic, was supposedly protected by the Geneva convention. I guess someone forgot about that.

  20. At the risk of sounding incredibly insensitive since I have not lost anyone to the war in Iraq:

    I wasn’t aware that anyone was giving Fred Phelps a free pass. It seems to me that this discussion itself is a great example of the scrutiny that those protestors are getting. Everything I’ve read about the odious things that Fred Phelps does makes a point of saying that he is reviled and that he’s shamelessly and tastelessly trying to get publicity for his own pet cause. It seems to me that your average serviceperson, deservedly, comes off far better than Fred Phelps.

    Fred Phelps as of yet has not broken any laws. It’s tough to craft a law that stops the Fred Phelpses of the world without simultaneously making it clear that those who valiantly fight for our freedoms are really just fighting for nothing. Just as if we fail to follow the Geneva Conventions, if we fail treat our prisoners as we would like to be treated if we were prisoners regardless of what our enemies might do, we demonstrate to those soldiers fighting for our freedoms that they really are fighting for nothing.

  21. Phelps’ group showed up here in West Virginia during the Sago coal mine crisis. They were protesting at the funerals of the miners. Word got out that Phelps’ group was coming to town and a curious thing happened: All the amunition was bought at the local gun shop; not a single bullet left.

    Also, it seems that one of Phelps’ group was in a car ‘accident’. Yet, in spite of there being many people around, no one saw a thing.

    Phelps’ group has never found a welcome environment in West Virginia and never will.

  22. Can’t remember who said it, but there’s a quote that goes something like “the best defense against abuse of free speech is more free speech”. That’s why I don’t support banning protests, but like and support counter-protest groups like ProtestWarriors.

  23. well, as had been previously noted on this very site the man sent protestors after Mr. Rogers’ funeral. After an act that depraived nothing from his frothing mouth of hate would really surprise me. The funny thing is, Mr. Rogers has often said that he tried to live his life the same way Jesus lived his (minus the last couple of weeks I suspect), so I can only assume that Mr. Phelps would be giving Ol’ JC an earful as they pounded in the nails had he been there. Yet apparently he is a devout ‘Christian’.

    On a related note, as much as I disagree with many of Michael Moore’s tactics, I found it utterly hilarious that he had a group that truly embodied the stereotype of flaming follow Phelp’s around in the ‘Sodomobile’. The images of discomfort on Phelp’s face every time they got near him was priceless. If one were of a spiteful nature I would suggest the best way to repay Mr. Phelps is to have large congregations of openly homosexual people simply gather outside of his church every Sunday. They wouldn’t need to make a scene, just stand there holding hands and I suspect that eventually the elevation in blood pressure resulting from his uncontrolled rage would simply do Phelps in.

  24. Phelps is a man who loves to hate and abuse others and has figured out a way to make a living at it. Simple as that.

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