People We Can All Agree Are Scumbags

Some folks are asking me about my thoughts on the Westboro Baptist Church deciding to picket the funeral of the nine-year-old victim of the Tucson shooting. Very briefly:

1. Fred Phelps and his pals make me wish I were a religious man, so I could enjoy imagining the lot of them spending eternity as a human centipede in the very bowels of Hell. But that’s really not a good reason to want to be religious.

2. The day Charlie Stross pointed me to an online essay positing that Fred Phelps is a con man, I felt many things were suddenly clarified. You may find it similarly elucidating.

3. I do think one positive thing about the Westboro Baptist Church is that whether we’re conservative or liberal, gay or straight, hawk or dove, young or old, rich or poor, we can all agree on one thing: those people are assholes. And that’s a comforting thought.

Along that line, allow me to commend to you this essay on the Patriot Guard Riders, written by my then-guest blogger Mykal Burns. My understanding is that a large group of Tucson citizens will be doing a similar thing at the funeral in question. Good for them.

110 Comments on “People We Can All Agree Are Scumbags”

  1. Groups like those in the Westboro Baptist Church are the reason I not only no longer go to church, but I will never force my children to either. I do everything I can to teach them about as many different religions that there are and hope that when they come of age they can make the right choices and support the right people.
    That a supposed Church would do something so callous is completely nauseating. I have seen the Patriot Guard Riders, I hope to one day join them. Until then I hope beyond hope they are there to support those who are in pain and shame those who are idiots.

  2. I do not usually think violence is any kind of way to conduct disagreement, and I wouldn’t actually suggest it, even against these notorious scumbags. But…

    There are very few moments in a human being’s existence when it is just vital that they have a sacred space to be inside, and I say this as a confident atheist. The funeral of a nine year old child is one of those place for a parent.

    Anyone who would profane that space in time for those parents is someone who deserves whatever a less pacific person than myself would be inclined to deal out to them.

    In my secret heart I really wish that would happen to them. I know it might only make things worse, but I wonder even about that. They want to rob two parents of the space to mourn their nine year old murdered child. What could possibly make these people worse than they already are?

  3. There’s little doubt Phelch (I usually detest “Rethuglican”/”Dumbocrat” and all their ilk, but the man DESERVES no better than playgroundisms) has himself a money-making scheme. However, indications from people who’ve been on the periphery of his little clan are that he really does seem to be the kind of shriveled lump of gelid hate that can believe it to boot.

  4. *sigh* I read an article, I think from a Tuscon newspaper but I can’t recall for sure, today that detailed what the good citizens of Tuscon are planning in order to shield the mourners from these people (and I use the term very loosely). It was a lovely article, except for the sentence where they referred to Fred Phelps as the “spiritual leader” of the Westboro gang. I kind of lost it when I read that, because it’s pretty clear that there is nothing spiritual about that man or his group.

    A few weeks ago, Fred and his family were going to come out here to my area to demonstrate at the funeral of a local young military man who had been killed in Afghanistan. Of course, many people in the Fresno and Clovis area were planning on doing essentially what the Tuscon citizens are planning. We didn’t have to, as it turned out that Elizabeth Edwards’s funeral was the same day, and Fred and the kids went and demonstrated there instead, where they could get more publicity. Which, as far as I’m concerned, only goes to show what their real priority is in doing the things they do. It’s disgusting.

  5. It’s going to be interesting to watch what they do when “Red State” comes out. As it is, I wish that some group would handle them the way that Molly Ivins said that Lubbock, Texas handled the Nazis when they came to town: every time the cameras aimed at the parade the locals along the route turned around and dropped trousers to make sure there was no news footage…

  6. Elaine@#4 – and from what I read, the people in NC did the exact same thing as others mentioned – blocked them from getting close to the church and sang/chanted over them, so the family wouldn’t have to hear them.

  7. I wholeheartedly agree with Bill Cunningham. I’m a “confident atheist” myself, but, like him, I understand how important it is for loved ones to “have a sacred space to be inside” in the event of a family tragedy or death. For Phelps and his ilk to refer to themselves as a “church” is an insult to the truly good people in this world who honestly believe (however misguidedly) that god wants them to leave the world a better place than they found it. At their best, churches should signify a place of hope, refuge, community, safety and love. Picketing funerals just to make money off of the attendant lawsuits flies directly in the face of the values that xtians are supposed to hold most dear. If there is a hell, I hope there’s a nice, deep, dark, pit for Phelps and his ilk to spend eternity in. They deserve nothing more than that.

  8. @ #9 They tried that at Comicon too, trying to bait a lawsuit I suppose. Something similar to San Fran occurred.

    As for the rest, I hope that enough calm, respectful people show up and shield the mourners from the trolls.

  9. Hopefully the day will come when mankind will be able to come to grips with it own mortality and we will no longer be drawn to religions and their promise of eternal life.

  10. Surely I don’t need to explain to you that practicising a religion doesn’t necessarily mean believing that anyone is inevitably doomed to spend some amount of time in the bowels of Hell, or any other bowels.

    Personally, I agree with the current President of the United States when he observes that some things are “above my pay grade.” Mine too. We’re not all so sure of ourselves. One of the core elements of any religious practice worth the name is doubt.

  11. The Phelps gang has “In God’s name we get paid” as a credo. Trolling for cash awards has got to down there towards the bottom of Dante’s Hell. Eighth Circle, says I.

  12. Oh, you are so right, John. The English language has no curse words strong enough to express my true opinions of the Westboro [EXPLETIVE REDACTED]. They are not “Christian” in any sense of the word; in fact, their “God” is a hate-filled, vengeful entity more closely resembling…oh, I don’t know, maybe…SATAN???? (Thank you, Dana Carvey…)

    One of my friends from Electric Minds owns a Harley and has ridden with the Patriot Guard Riders on a number of occasions. He’s in New Mexico, so maybe he’ll be heading to Arizona for these funerals.

  13. If only there was a God who could sue WBC for libeling him. Oh there’s an Onion article to be.

  14. I notice that a lot of the Westboro protestors are kids and I wonder if the kids are being used as human shields to discourage any violence directed at the group.

  15. Rob: Sadly, I believe they’re the newest generation of Phelps offspring, being indoctrinated at an early age into the family business.

  16. No doubt that they’re the newest generation getting an early start, but I still wonder if they’re also being used as human shields.

  17. As a Christian (Methodist), I refuse to attach either “baptist” or “church” after Westboro. They are neither. However, as much as I believe Phelps is doing this to make however much money he can, I do think he actually believes what he’s saying. I’ve met too many people who believe quite near the same stuff as he spouts off.

  18. I just read the article Fred Phelps is a Con Man and I don’t completely agree. I’m sure Phelps would sue anyone he can and he probably does hope that people will turn violenr against him and his group. But the author of that article doesn’t know for sure that this is Phelps’s mission. At one point he does say he is sure, but then he says “probably” and “I assume”. But it’s not just that, if Phelps was making as much money as the author seems to believe he is by suing people, wouldn’t we be hearing about all these lawsuits.

    I think Phelps and the Westboro Church stand a better chance of getting sued themselves for harassment abd disrupting funerals.

  19. I’m pretty thrilled that when they tried to protest in Canada, we didn’t let them cross the border.

  20. That makes too much sense, Kevin thanks for the great idea, I am going to make signs and drive up to Tucson which i only a an hour away.

  21. Friends of mine organized the counter-protest in McAlester, OK that made the rounds on the ‘net a couple of months back. It works a charm, really. Block ’em and overwhelm ’em, and they run like scared little rabbits.

  22. Phelps may or may not be a con man now, but he sure has been in the past: It’s very, very long, but it’s a look at Phelps so scathing that the paper that originally assigned the article refused to publish it despite plenty of supporting information and interviews…because they were terrified of being sued by Phelps and his family cult.

  23. i’ve dealt with “Pastor” Phelps once before on a college campus. Definitely both a con man and crazed, too. The look in the eyes of his “flock” is the same as what I imagined Charlie Manson’s member’s would look like…Manson with a Bible: Now there’s a scary thought….

  24. @ #25 Ellid,

    That was an amazing article, brings some real insight into who they are and where they are coming from, thanks for sharing.

  25. Personally, I would be happy if the Westboro folks were the only people who stooped to this sort of behavior. We’re used to their little dog and pony show by now–it’s old hat. Sadly, their particular method of making asses of themselves seems to be catching on.

    You may have seen some of the pictures of congressional staff gathered on the Capitol’s east steps on Monday for a moment of silence in honor of the dead and injured. What the pictures don’t show is the tea party protesters, standing across the street, screeching about repealing health care reform. During the moment of silence.

    They were standing directly outside the Cannon rotunda, which is where people were going to pay their respects. When I went out an hour later, they were still there.

  26. Well, if Phelps is sueing people whom he provokes, I thought after reading that link, then there’ll be records of that. So I’ve spent a few minutes googling “Fred Phelps lawsuit” and similar phrases.

    All I can find is the -opposite- of a money-making or profitable scheme. Several years ago, Phelps and his church were sued by an understandably outraged family, after his gang rudely violated the funeral of their Marine son who was killed in the line of duty. They won the suit, and a court ordered Phelps and hus church to pay the family =$11 million= in damages. Phelps has been appealing the suit ever since, and a court which has heard him on appeal is expected to issue a ruling in 2011. Even if Phelps and his church are getting legal representation pro bono, fighting this lawsuit isn’t profitable for him, and if he loses on final appeal, he’s going to owe that violated family millions and millions of dollars.

    I can’t find reference to Phelps sueing anyone, only to Phelps being sued.

    So I think that linked essay is wishful thinking. Phelps is a thoroughly repellant being, and his “church” and its members are thoroughly repellant. But I’d say a foaming rage for fame/notoriety and/or a bevvy of attention-seeking psyche disorders are more likely motives here than profit-seeking.

  27. Phelps is in it for the money. that i can at least understand the motivation. his followers though…

    theyre all diuchebags though.

  28. Even if Phelps and his church are getting legal representation pro bono, fighting this lawsuit isn’t profitable for him, and if he loses on final appeal, he’s going to owe that violated family millions and millions of dollars.

    This doesn’t prove anything one way or the other, but I believe many adults in the Phelps clan have been to law school. I remember reading a profile of the family at some point in the last year, but I’m too lazy right now to dig it up.

  29. Phelps himself is a disbarred lawyer. In fact–here’s a mind-twister: He was primarily a civil rights lawyer.

    Much less surprising is that two of his adult estranged children have publicly accused him of violent physical abuse, and one of them has described his motives as simply being “addicted to hate.”

  30. Laura Resnick:

    If he’s threatening to sue but is happy to receive a settlement without filing, then you wouldn’t find much about him suing anyone. And if he actually is running a scam, this would be preferable to suing, because it costs less and has a better chance of success.

    Don’t get me wrong, he could just be a hateful zealot. Or, alternatively, be a hateful zealot and and con man.

  31. That essay makes a lot of sense, and possibly lowers my opinion of the Westboros (which I hadn’t thought possible).

  32. I think WBC and the whole lot are a bunch of hateful scum bags that should go off somewhere and die. I used to think they give religion a bad name, but I think most intelligent people see that they do not represent the norm there. Having said that, they have every right of free speech that other protesters have.

  33. Yeah, he’s a con man. The thing is, knowing that doesn’t make me or anyone else any less enraged by him.

    (His “compound” is 40 miles or so from where I live, so his clan is very active around here.)

  34. I’m with Laura Resnick and others on this – if he’s running the whole show as a con, there should be some record of someone, somewhere having been sued by Westboro – no matter what NDA’s got signed – and there doesn’t appear to be any such activity. (Anybody having more luck with the search than I’ve had, please do speak up – I’m aware I could very well be wrong.) Now sure, I’d like to believe he’s a con man – I’m an Extremely Left-Wing Liberal Christian who thinks his and his group of hate-mongering flesh puppets actions are earning them a special place in Hell – and the sooner they depart for said special place, the better. I agree, their methods fit with what you’d expect of someone pulling such a con, but appearances can be deceiving – just to look at Phelps, for example -, without hearing his diatribes, one might assume he was just another poorly dressed old man, as opposed to the bile-spewing, spiritual leper that he is…

  35. The Arizona legislature has come together in distaste for the Westboro gang. Yesterday they passed a law (and the governor rapidly signed it) making it illegal to protest with 300 feet (I think it is) of a funeral.

    I believe that this will survive legal challenge (on the same grounds that Bush’s “free speech zones” did) — they can protest, but not close enough to be seen. If they get closer, our western lawmen will remove them.

    I’m not sure I really agree with this, in principle, but in effect today, I’m all in favor.

  36. It’s really hard to even think of these scum without resorting to the sort of words I don’t normally use, even after I drop a heavy object on a bare foot. Canada was right in declaring them an unwelcome hate group.

    They have caused me to stop believing in karma. If karma was operating, Phred Felps would be suffering in massive pain that no medicine could cure, and would continue to do so until that glorious day when he enters the gates of hell.

  37. Phelps-as-con-man is an interesting idea, but shouldn’t some of the claims in that article be verifiable? Is he a disbarred lawyer? How many members of his “flock” are lawyers?

  38. #37-“I’m with Laura Resnick and others on this – if he’s running the whole show as a con, there should be some record of someone, somewhere having been sued by Westboro – no matter what NDA’s got signed – and there doesn’t appear to be any such activity.”

    I was wondering the same thing. Scum bags he/they are, but I am not so sure the motivation is is as it says. Kind of falls under the “well I read it on the internet so it must be true” or “a entertainer feels this way so I must believe this too”.

    Ultimately I think the best way to deal with them is to build a human wall that they cannot penetrate and then completely ignore them including the media and personalities.

  39. I want to know what’s truly different between the actions of Phelps and his ilk, which at least is public and to the point, and the Mormon church putting all that money and effort to deny gay people the right to marriage in California. Or the Catholic church blaming their sexual scandals on gay people. Ultimately it’s all about religious hatred – the Phelps people have simply come up with a particularly effective way to get their message out.

  40. @39 JJS: Karma doesn’t have to be instantaneous, you know. As for me, I just re-read Matthew 7, and trust that their God and mine will judge each of us by our works.

    @40 Bob: from his Wikipedia page:

    A formal complaint was filed against Phelps on November 8, 1977, by the Kansas State Board of Law Examiners for his conduct during a lawsuit against a court reporter named Carolene Brady. Brady had failed to have a court transcript ready for Phelps on the day he asked for it; though it did not affect the outcome of the case for which Phelps had requested the transcript, Phelps still requested $22,000 in damages from her. In the ensuing trial, Phelps called Brady to the stand, declared her a hostile witness, and then cross-examined her for nearly a week, during which he accused her of being a “slut”, tried to introduce testimony from former boyfriends whom Phelps wanted to subpoena, and accused her of a variety of perverse sexual acts, ultimately reducing her to tears on the stand. Phelps lost the case; according to the Kansas Supreme Court:

    The trial became an exhibition of a personal vendetta by Phelps against Carolene Brady. His examination was replete with repetition, badgering, innuendo, belligerence, irrelevant and immaterial matter, evidencing only a desire to hurt and destroy the defendant. The jury verdict didn’t stop the onslaught of Phelps. He was not satisfied with the hurt, pain, and damage he had visited on Carolene Brady.

    In an appeal, Phelps prepared affidavits swearing to the court that he had eight witnesses whose testimony would convince the court to rule in his favor. Brady, in turn, obtained sworn, signed affidavits from the eight people in question, all of whom said that Phelps had never contacted them and that they had no reason to testify against Brady. Phelps had committed perjury. On July 20, 1979, Phelps was permanently disbarred from practicing law in the state of Kansas, though he continued to practice in Federal courts.

    In 1985, nine Federal judges filed a disciplinary complaint against Phelps and five of his children, alleging false accusations against the judges. In 1989, the complaint was settled; Phelps agreed to stop practicing law in Federal court permanently, and two of his children were suspended for periods of six months and one year.

    Also, I know his daughter is a lawyer; she argued the Church’s case in front of the Supreme Court last year.

  41. I have observed that many people play a role long enough that they become that role. Phelps has played himself as incarnate evil long enough that that’s what he is.

  42. Whatever the underlying motives of this group is, I’m absolutely positive that their ability (and freedom) to do “their thing” was not the intent of the Constitution… why do we have laws that protect the “rights” of these kind of hate mongers?

    And, to call them “douche bags” does a great disservice to a fairly useful device.

  43. There’s a documentary called “The Most Hated Family in America” about the Phelps that I highly recommend. A journalist from the BBC followed them around for about a year and the family dynamic is shocking to say the least.

    At one point, they have a kid who can’t be more than five saying “God Hates Fags” over and over again. Every time he says it clearly, the whole family compliments him and tells him how smart he is.

    Plus, all the children are home schooled as well. At one point one of the kids got invited to a birthday party, only when it was realized that he was one of the “Phelps” he was disinvited.

    From what I gathered, Fred keeps the whole thing in order by disowning, abusing, and slandering any member of his family that turns against him. One of the daughters was seventeen or so at the time of the filming, and she broke down crying about how she sometimes wanted a normal life, and to be able to go out on dates. Then she made the reporter from the BBC promise he wouldn’t tell her mom what she’d done.

    I know it’s really easy to hate the Phelps family, because what they do is so obviously reprehensible, but as far as their long term survivability goes it might be more productive to be nice to them. In the documentary, Shirley Phelps would lean over to her children and explain to them that the whole world hated them and would never accept them. I can’t help but think they would be greatly diminished if people at least made the point of being nicer to Phelps children.

  44. Cassie: Don’t be so quick on the “I’m offended!” trigger. BC’s most likely pointing out just how isolated the Phelps kids are; see her last paragraph.

  45. BC Woods @ 46: “I can’t help but think they would be greatly diminished if people at least made the point of being nicer to Phelps children.”

    This. The Phelps clan is best understood as a case of serial child abuse. How the child protection authorites haven’t acted on this is beyond me.

  46. I live in Phoenix. Some friends of mine are taking time off and going to Tucson specifically to politely get between Phelps’ zombies and the funeral. Yes I know how many actual zombies I just insulted.

    Also, our legislature wrote and passed in one day a law keeping a minimum distance between protests and funerals. While I have mixed feelings about this law, and about the Arizona state government in general, it is one more roadblock against those asshats.

  47. @Cassie #47

    No, not at all. It’s just in this particular case I think that children being trapped in such a toxic environment is horrible.

    Sorry if I didn’t make that clear.

  48. Thomas Murphy, what’s truly different is violation of privacy. The Mormon and Catholic churches don’t instruct their members to or lead their members in intruding unwanted and uninvited on grieving families they’ve never met while those families are burying their loves ones.

  49. Frank Colella@45: “why do we have laws that protect the “rights” of these kind of hate mongers?”

    The law is supposed to apply equally to everyone, so making what WBC does illegal would make a lot of other forms of speech illegal too.

    When the Constitution was written I don’t think anyone could have forseen this kind of abuse happening, because it’s a play for media attention and the 18th Century media didn’t have the audience that’s available today.

  50. Interesting new twist … I see in this morning’s news that President Obama is planning to attend the services in Tucson and offer memorials for the victims in his “national consoler” role. This will of course mean a significant Secret Service presence … I wonder if they include the Phelps group among known potential threats?

  51. Why in the world does a “protest right” apply to a funeral – any funeral – in the first place. Are people allowed to protest me taking out the trash, or protest my Halloween party, or family barbeque? A funeral is a private event and should not be subject to protest of any sort, ever, period.

    That would shut down this particular brand of douchebagery, and makes these particular douchebags come up with a new scheme.

  52. I encountered Phelps in the 70’s long before he achieved national noteriety, and my first and subsequent impressions were that he was completely bug-fuck nuts. His eyes radiated deranged. Nothing since has changed that opinion, or even remotely challenged it.

    The membership statement of the PGR:

    “We don’t care what you ride or if you ride, what your political views are, or whether you’re a hawk or a dove. It is not a requirement that you be a veteran. It doesn’t matter where you’re from or what your income is; you don’t even have to ride. The only prerequisite is Respect.”

    I’ve been with them on several “missions” as a non-riding member since 2006. All they ask is that if you join them on missions is that you follow their rules of non-confrontational non-violent non-reactive screening, and follow the directions of the ride captain..

  53. Just read some of their signs and had a thought: they never mention anyone as an individual because that person could then sue, or at least block their suit.

    Is it possible to sue on someone else’s behalf?

    Becuase I would swear that they are tarnishing God’s public image and doing quite a bit of damage to His cause, His funding, and His following. Pretty sure they’d lose a defamation of character lawsuit if God (or agents acting on His behalf) were to sue THEM.

    Think the Pope might be up to a cease and desist order?

  54. Laura, does the more subtle approach of the Mormons make it more acceptable? Both the Mormon and Catholic are unequivocal about denying rights to an entire class of people and actually pony up the bucks to do it on a national scale. It’s all a violation of privacy.

  55. Actually, Thomas Murphy, trying to wrench the discussion over to Mormons and Catholics instead of Westboro constitutes a thread derail, and intentional or not, I would be pleased not to have that. So let’s go ahead and snip off that particular line of discussion and keep it focused, please.

  56. Putting on the lawyer hat for a moment.

    “Why don’t we hear about these lawsuits” – and how would you expect to hear about them? Unless a lawsuit is notorious (e.g. the McDonald’s coffee case) or makes its way up to a high court or is of local interest, you probably won’t hear about it. It’s silly to expect that every time WBC sends a demand letter to somebody, or files a claim against a city council, or files a lawsuit, that will make the papers – much less the national news.

    Phelps is a disbarred lawyer. His daughter is a practicing lawyer. He therefore does not have to pay attorneys. The usual fate of lawyers or firms who try to run a pay-or-I’ll-sue scam is disbarrment (try Googling the Trevor Group for an example), but that isn’t a problem when you grow your own attorneys. It also isn’t a problem if you can be such an asshole as to provoke people into doing things that are in fact grounds for a lawsuit. Such as denying you a protest permit because of the content of your speech, or punching you in the face because you have an offensive sign.

    As for the $11 million dollar lawsuit, I believe y’all are talking about Snyder v. Phelps. If you are assuming that this is a slam-dunk loss for WBC, you are wrong. You may also be unaware that some heavy hitters filed amici briefs, not because they adore Phelps, but because of the First Amendment issues implicated in his case.

  57. Joel@57: My understanding of their legal position is that they’re not actually protesting the funeral itself – they’re protesting a general hatred of the USA, everything in it, and LGBT people in particular, on public land that merely happens to be adjacent to where a funeral is taking place; and that under the First Amendment the local authorities cannot deny them the use of the land for that purpose.

  58. Hm. In my mind there is no real difference between Westboro and the average baptist, catholic or LDS church other than degree of openness about their dislike of people who are not like them, then wrapping god around it.

    good christians have to be the ones who take on the bad ones. instead of watching Fred or his daughter debate another gay rights advocate, they need to be confronted by god christians. but good christians would much rather leave the westboros to the people they most obviously hate.

  59. Apologies for the double post but I just caught Joel’s question.

    Joel @59: Generally not. Whether or not you can bring a lawsuit is called “standing”. We are hearing a lot about this now with the Proposition 8 cases in California. Standing is the issue of whether the person bringing the lawsuit has the right to do so. For example, if somebody punches you in the face, I, a complete stranger, do not have standing to file a lawsuit for battery on your behalf. If you want to sue the US government because it is screwing something up, you likely have to show that you are personally affected by that screwup in some say; “I’m a taxpayer” or “I’m offended by this” is not enough.

  60. #41: “I’m with Laura Resnick and others on this – if he’s running the whole show as a con, there should be some record of someone, somewhere having been sued by Westboro – no matter what NDA’s got signed – and there doesn’t appear to be any such activity.”

    Like an earlier poster, I live 30 miles from the group, and I grew up in the same town. Their schtick is twofold: 1) troll for lawsuits on the basis of either violation of 1st Amendment rights and 2) egging people on so they can get a civil assault or battery complaint against them. They sued (and I believe settled with) the City of Topeka on the first instance a couple of decades ago, and they videotape pretty much every minute of their stupid (almost daily) picket lines in Topeka holding those offensive signs just to see if they can get some kind of cash out of it. You could include 3) tax evasion as well since their “church” owns the houses and vehicles of pretty much the entire Phelps clan, and they probably take alot of their meals, etc. at the church. This shelters their personal assets from a large number of taxes.

    I agree that it’s probably not their primary motivation, but these kinds of cons are what has kept them solvent (or better) for 20+ years.

  61. Dave h @ 55 “When the Constitution was written I don’t think anyone could have forseen this kind of abuse happening, because it’s a play for media attention and the 18th Century media didn’t have the audience that’s available today.”

    Exactly my point. I wasn’t suggesting that we need new laws to prevent this kind of outrageous behavior, but rather I was pointing out, as you said, that these kind of “religious gatherings” were probably not the INTENTION of our founding Father’s when they penned the Constitution. I know this may seem blasphemous to some, but I think it might be time to rewrite or modify the Constitution to better address the issues they we are faced with TODAY!

  62. Frank Colella:

    I’d be terrified of what we’d get if we let the powers that be re-write the Constitution today.

  63. Frank @67: Trying to spirit-medium the Framers to determine their “real intent” is always an extremely dangerous exercise, especially because it presumes a) they acted with one will and b) if it didn’t exist when the Constitution was signed it doesn’t count. By those lights, we wouldn’t expect the Establishment Clause to apply to Wicca or Satanism, and certainly wouldn’t apply the Free Speech Clause to the Internet.

    The solution to these people is exactly what is being done now: counter-speech. Blocking the funeral, mooning the cameras, fake counterprotests, are all much more effective than trying to crap up the First Amendment. They also have the benefit of being largrely lawsuit-proof.

  64. To the lawyers:

    Why is this sort or behavior not a tort of intentional infliction of emotional distress?

  65. Well, crap. So much for suing on God’s behalf. I did have a nice half hour there, though.

    Since they’re convinced that we all hate them, and that we’re going to hell and full of evil and that God Hates America, why don’t we give them there own country (the compound)? Then they don;t have to worry about being part of the evil, nasty, hell ridden morass.

    It’d be kind of fun to see these people have to actually make money, get food, get energy to live with, etc… when they aren’t allowed in our country because, as the Canadians tell us, they’re a foreign hate group.

    BTW, standing slow clap for the Canadians on that one.

    Ah well, if wishes were horses and blah blah blah.

  66. I met Fred Phelps once.

    I had the chance to participate with my church in a counter demonstration when he came to town. Fred Phelps’ family numbered seven. We numbered 1100.

    I looked right in his eyes, and saw the anger and the fear there.

    I saw the mirror of the battle that had been going on in my own soul for so long. I saw the twisted creature I could become.

    I went home. The next day, I came out to my church, then my family, then the whole wide world.

    I met Fred Phelps once. That meeting saved my life.

  67. I’m actually surprised that when this Phelps cult forces their vile protests upon mourning families in the midst of burying a loved one, that the law isn’t able to consider it some sort of aggravated battery or something along those lines; in the sense that the protesters are possibly causing emotional and psychological abuse to these families. I would also think that these protests could also feel threatening to the mourning families, unless of course the protesters are careful enough to word their rhetoric to not be construed as threats. I would certainly feel threatened if I were attending a funeral for a friend or family member, and an angry mob shows up foaming at the mouth.

    Don’t get me wrong. I’m all for free speech. Peaceful protests and rallies have their place in our society. But at the same time, we as responsible citizens have to realize that there are logical limits to our right to express ourselves in public. Example: if someone emails, states in public, tweets, texts, or puts a video on You Tube saying they are gonna blow up some building or harm someone, especially if it is a political figure, then that individual shouldn’t be surprised when the doorbell rings, and it ain’t the Girl Scouts selling cookies, but the FBI and their friends the SWAT team ready to break down the front door.

    I don’t know the exact details, but I remember my brother telling me about how one day in high school years back, a student was jokingly making statements (maybe in email, can’t remember) about doing harm to the current president at that time, Bill Clinton. The FBI was there within a couple hours to escort said student from class for the day. He never returned to that school, as far as I know. Now, this is maybe a bit more cut and dry as this person made a threat, but still, I think that these days the whole excuse of free speech is used as a get out of jail free card for a lot of bad statements, rhetoric, and other types of despicable behavior being shoved at average working people that just want to get through the day, pay their bills, and maybe see a tiny amount of improvement and change put in place by our government to make things a wee bit better for everyone in these increasingly hard times.

  68. Mary Sue @73: good on ya. I say that without a shred of sarcasm. You took an expression of hate and used it to become a better human being.

    I have no problems believing that Phelps is a hateful jackhole and that he is a con man. Plenty of people who think God hates gays show up to protest Pride Parades, but somehow fail to protest highly-publicized funerals of people who have nothing to do with gay-rights issues whatsoever.

  69. The law is supposed to apply equally to everyone, so making what WBC does illegal would make a lot of other forms of speech illegal too.

    They might have freedom of speech, but they don’t have the right to disrupt funerals. The grieving families have just as much right to a peaceful funeral as the Westboro’s have the ringt the sprout their bile.

    To those who are not sure they agree with the law passed yesterday that makes it illegal for protestors to be within 300 yards of a funeral. It’s about the same thing as the Ku Klux Klan not being allowed to have their rallies near schools. Personally, I don’t think 300 yards is far enough. They’ll still be seen at the end of the block and they’ll still be standing along the routes.

  70. Rob @76: You’re confusing legal rights with moral rights.

    I’d urge anyone wondering why these jerks are allowed to do such things to take a look at Snyder v Phelps. It’s not always easy to sort out the right to free speech from how we hold people accountable for that speech.

  71. mythago,

    Thanks, I see that it is one of the three torts from the case on which the damages were originally awarded. My question was intended to inquire why the IIED tort law does not create a legal grounds to prevent the protests. Since the 4th Circuit appears to have not directly addressed the IIED claim, is the SCOTUS ruling expected to clarify the issue?

    ‘Cause to a layman, it sure looks like a case of “asking to be punched”.



  72. You’re confusing legal rights with moral rights.
    No, I’m not. The way I see it, people have legal right to a peaceful funeral. The Westboro’s can have their freedom of speech someone else.

  73. @70 Zanibar Buck0Buck McFate

    Short answer: Courts have historically been hostile to the tort of intentional infliction of emotional distress (“IIED”) and it is a hard tort to prove.
    Longer answer: The whole standing issue: by making their statements so general, never targeting an individual, it is going to be hard to establish an individual has standing to sue at all. The idea of a bystander suffering emotional distress (“ED”) has not been favored by the courts. Most importantly, the elements to prove IIED are pretty squishy, which is why courts don’t like it. To prove IIED, the plaintiff has to establish each of the following: (a) the defendant acted intentionally or recklessly; (b) Defendant’s conduct was extreme and outrageous; (c) Defendant’s act is the cause of the distress; and (d) Plaintiff suffers severe emotional distress as a result of defendant’s conduct.
    Intent to cause ED would be hard to prove in the Westboro case because, again, their statements are general and not to an individual, and because they are, ostensibly, present to protest the US and the war and gays and the fact that the sky is blue. Finding evidence to prove they intentionally protested a particular funeral to cause emotional distress to an individual would be difficult. As for recklessly, you’d have to prove the Westboro protesters knew their actions would cause ED to that specific plaintiff and then went ahead and acted anyway. It is logical protesting a funeral with hate speech would, but logic is not proof. Then you have to prove the conduct was extreme or outrageous. I think we can all agree it is, but the fact the Westboro protesters were exercising a constitutional right could cause a tangle on that element. You also have to prove that plaintiff did suffer emotional distress, a non-physical harm, _and_ that the Westboro people’s actions caused that distress. Proving a non-physical harm is always tough. But proving that the Westboro protesters actions were the cause of the emotional distress of someone who just buried a loved one… How could that be determined? What part of the ED is because of natural grief over the death of a loved one and how much because those piles of feces protested the funeral?
    So, yeah. Difficult.

  74. I’ve heard that there is a move toward a bill that would make it illegal to disrupt funerals – you would have to keep a distance of at least 1000 feet. That’s probably the best they can do. I just don’t understand hateful people like this. Unfortunately the case that just went to the Supreme Court was weak because the father admitted that he didn’t even know they were protesting until he went home and saw it on the news. Not that it didn’t cause grief, but it made the argument much weaker against their physical presence on the funeral route. Old Fred’s daughter is as smart as she is misguided, and she’ll make sure they walk the edge between legal and illegal. Where’s a good old lightening strike when you need one?

  75. I could quibble with some of Jpeabody’s points but they are broadly correct and I would just be a dick for doing so.

    As the con article notes, “thank god for IEDs” is not the same as “Staff Sargeant Ruiz deserved to die.” There is a reason the signs are worded as they are.

    CNN reports that WBC has agreed not to protest the funeral in return for a local radio host giving them air time.

    They’re just going to protest the other victims’ funerals instead.

  76. It certainly is a sticky subject, how to say one type of protest is wrong but another one is good usually depends on which side of the protest you are on. Playing devil’s advocate is a game that can and is played both ways.

  77. MasterThief@43: Hey, thanks for the information. I should have done a little searching myself.

  78. As a librarian, I wonder if I could distract the little ones of the WBC mob by offering to read something like “Goodnight Moon”. They could probably also use some reading material that is 100% non-douchebag; I have a list of suggested books, and could hand out copies of “Little Toot” or “Are You My Mother?” Having dealt with herds of easily distracted preschoolers, I’m pretty good at projecting.

  79. @51 Patrick Conners said

    I live in Phoenix. Some friends of mine are taking time off and going to Tucson ….

    Patrick, why don’t you invite Joe Arpaio and some of his best to accompany you. I would love to see Phelps try something in Maricopa county.


  80. I have seen Phelps described elsewhere as “the asshole canary in the free speech coal mine”. As long as he continues to be allowed to say awful things in public we know that the right to free speech and assembly is secure.

    Of course, the right to free speech does not imply the right to be heard – cheers to the counter-protestors.

  81. I was actually almost at ground zero of the shooting (it came down to me not being able to find some tape and being delayed about half an hour) and it’s had me in a sort of brooding reflective mood ever since. I’ve been thinking a lot lately about what drives people to hurt without cause, and I thought I’d share some of my thoughts for whatever they’re worth.

    First, I feel that the Phelps family and Laughner share a similar action pattern.

    A lot of this is conjecture on my part, but I feel it’s at least useful conjecture.

    1. They both construct some sort of “ethos” specifically designed to alienate everyone but perhaps a small group of their friends (in Laughner’s case it looks like just him with maybe two others, in the Phelps’ case it’s only their nuclear family)

    2. They feel persecuted for nebulous reasons, are at first ignored, and then lash out

    3. This in turn allows them to encounter actual resistance, thus solidifying their feelings of persecution.

    The thing of it is, none of that makes me feel hatred toward the Phelps or Laughner. Nor does it strike me as “evil” even though they end up doing evil things. Even knowing that, I still feel like I should hate them.

    However, I think hate is exactly what people like Laughner and the Phelps go out to find. I doubt either of them would know what to do with their life if they didn’t get to take up space in the collective consciousness everyone else. I suspect in Laughner’s case that this was exacerbated by genuine mental illness, but I think the motivations probably remain the same in the broad sense. Being the “Bogey Man” gives them a sense of importance, even if they turn it around the persecution roles in their heads.

    The news cycle helps feed into this by displaying frightening pictures, presenting the events as a narrative, and remind their viewers to be afraid of the Bogey Man. It’s done pretty much the same way every time there’s a tragedy that can attributed to deliberate human action.

    But when you really look at either group by themselves, I don’t know how you can feel anything other than a mixture of pity, compassion, and above all else, contempt. They’re not that smart, they’re not that strong, they’re not that charismatic. They’re losers.

    For example, I know a lot of people like to look at Charles Manson as some sort of super-villain/Pied Piper, but he is also a short guy who couldn’t play the guitar very well, got lonely, and made a bunch of loser runaways hang out with him.

    In both Laughner and Fred Phelps (I reserve judgment on the rest of the family) there is something inherently weak, flawed, and worthless.

    I wonder how much our group perception of these broken people as “Bogey Men” helps them develop their patterns of abuse. I know this isn’t responsible for all murder, or all killing, but if we got together with one voice and said “You’re not scary, you’re just a contemptible loser who can’t tell right from wrong” if that might not cut down on some of this particular type of violence and/or rhetoric.

  82. An illuminating article. It’s clearly not the man’s only motivation for creating his cult, but it’s a very useful tactical counterpoint to the idea that he’s doing this for purely ideological reasons, and a good de-simplification of the “he’s just a child/spouse abuser who uses religion as his cudgel.”

  83. You’re not kidding when you say everyone agrees that the WBC are scumbags, including the KKK. The link goes to an image of the KKK’s site rather than to the site itself because I’m at work at the moment, but I’ve seen the real thing and can verify that it is not photoshopped.

  84. A great post today. I feel equally disgust when “missionaires” from that religion from Utah knock on my door.

  85. Mythago asks how we would know about lawsuits brought by WBC. Easy: the mass media loves crazy lawsuit stories, and it loves Westboro Baptist stories. A combination of the two would be manna from heaven.

    While I’m not a lawyer, I am a litigation paralegal working personal injury, plaintiff’s side. The idea that (from the article linked to) “Lay one finger on him, do one thing that violates him, and he will sue you, and more importantly, the city, the police department, the US Military, and any private property owner he happens to be standing on to make money off of it” would produce a money machine is simply ludicrous. What are the damages? This stuff is strictly a nuisance suit. Even if you bully someone into paying, it won’t be more than the rather modest amount needed to hire counsel to defend against the suit.

    Of course they might provoke someone into really injuring them. But again: the mass media loves Westboro stories. We are to believe that this wouldn’t be reported?

    So what we have to believe is that the WBC crowd routinely provokes people into assaulting them. The media fails to note this, despite its interest in WBC. The WBC then sends demand letters to these people. Apparently no one passes the letter on to the media, or even posts it on their blog, or the letter otherwise somehow escapes notice. The people roll over and pay because, um…, why? Oh, yes: because defending a lawsuit would be prohibitively expensive. No hotshot lawyers out there would take this pro bono for the publicity, apparently. (Note to readers: defending a nuisance lawsuit is not actually all that expensive, and if the plaintiff pisses off the judge enough the plaintiff can be made to pay the defense costs.) So instead they pay up, apparently also signing non-disclosure agreements which to date none has broken. Or perhaps some do go to court, making them public record, and once again the media has completely failed to notice, despite their obvious interest in the subject and despite the defendants’ obvious interest in making sure the media knows.

    Frankly, the whole meme smells of a combination of despising the WBC crowd (quite properly) and the broader American myth of bogus lawsuits as the road to riches. I call bullshit.

  86. Richard @94: I am a plaintiffs’-side lawyer. I agree with you completely that “lawsuits are the easy road to riches” is bullshit (and bullshit which is deliberately promulgated by the bad guys, too).

    But a lot of people are saying “gee, I haven’t heard of it, so it can’t be true.” This despite the fact that Snyder v Phelps was heard but the US Supreme Court after an $11 million verdict and amici briefs from some Big First Amendment names. If that didn’t hit most people’s radar, what are the chances that most people will have heard of a case where WBC files a claim against a local government for denying a permit to protest? Or “angry guy punches a Phelps at a protest, their respective insurance companies sort it out”?

    Now, I think it’s pretty clear that WBC isn’t getting rich off these lawsuits – think they would have much luck in front of a jury? – but they don’t need to. How much do you think they’re going to get in legal fees if they win Snyder?

  87. The KKK stance makes me think that in the world of extremists, WBC is the Erotic Furry slot on the geek hierarchy chart. Now there is an unclean image.
    Also not seeing much difference between Phelps and Scientolgy with the lawyer usage.

  88. I thought Laughner reminded me of my father, and he still does. But Fred Phelps also fill the bill very well. The patterns of familial abuse and propagation of hatred ring eerily familiar to my own childhood.

    Sigh. This news cycle is making me cringe in so many very personal ways.

  89. mossjohn @99: they didn’t back down, they used the threat of protests as blackmail to get spots on radio and talk shows that wouldn’t have given them the time of day otherwise.

    Assuming they keep their agreement, of course, which I wouldn’t bet on.

  90. I’m grateful for the Patriot Guard Riders, but I think the Christians among us must also pay attention to Matthew 5:44 and similar verses.

    “But I say to you, Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which spitefully use you, and persecute you”

    Our greatest victory is not our enemies’ erasure or torment, but their conversion to the cause of love.

  91. I need to keep up on my blog reading. I blogged on those stupid idiots tonight (my apologies to all idiots of the world. You really didn’t deserve this comparison). I would have had even more nasty things to say. I dislike those people a lot (this is an understatement).

  92. #89 by sptrashcan:

    I have seen Phelps described elsewhere as “the asshole canary in the free speech coal mine”. As long as he continues to be allowed to say awful things in public we know that the right to free speech and assembly is secure.

    I might agree with the analogy if it allows for multiple canaries, and one of the other canaries was, say, WikiLeaks. Phelps et al piss off a whole bunch of people, but they aren’t much of a threat to the powers-that-be.

    And here’s one of the reasons I generally like to err on the side of free speech: I prefer that the assholes of the world be visible. That way they can be publicly responded to, defended from, and/or avoided. Invisible assholes are more dangerous.

    Yes, hateful/dishonest speech can spread. That’s why there’s a civic duty to respond to it. (The best type(s) of response to a particular example depend on the details, of course.)

  93. Fred Phelps is undoubtedly a despicable human being.

    However, I feel terribly sorry for his his family, and his followers.
    There is nothing worse than being ensnared in a relationship with a manipulator, and for families in these situations there often seems to be no escape.

    he is damaging his own, and adding to the distress of those who have lost loved ones.

    It would seem to me that the wrong people get shot in your country.

  94. I’ve always suspected that Fred Phelps is secret a huge gay-rights supporter, considering how much his group’s ridiculous stunts have helped the gay rights movement by turning people off homophobia.

    I also remember reading a post from someone doing a documentary on homosexuality and religion that Fred Phelps was oddly nice to her when she talked with him – and the she in question being an out lesbian – which suggests to me that maybe he doesn’t believe all the shit he’s spewing.

    Still, protesting at this sweet girl’s funeral is utterly despicable. I hope the Patriot Guard Riders do their best.

  95. Mythago @95: I think people aren’t saying “gee, I haven’t heard of it, so it can’t be true.” They are saying “gee, Google hasn’t heard of it, so it can’t be true.” This is not at all the same thing.

    There is still the question of damages. I have yet to see any plausible argument for what these might be. If threatening letters to random people based on nothing at all could produce a liveable income, people would be doing this without the flamboyant assholery of Fred Phelps.

    As for legal fees from Snyder, why would they get anything at all? It’s not as if a lawsuit that makes it all the way to the US Supreme Court can be called frivolous. As you know, just because you win a case doesn’t mean you also win legal fees.

  96. Mary Sue @73,

    That’s awesome. I only wish that Phelps himself could read your account and understand it.

  97. The Universe, as envisioned by the Phelps clan, is scarier than any vision I’ve encountered in the works of H.P. Lovecraft or Stephen King. As they put it, “God hates almost everybody he ever made.” I’m sure grad students in psychology or sociology have written theses about these people.

  98. Unlike many I do believe in God, and I also believe Phelps and his cohorts will one day have to face Him and answer for their deeds. I am cretain they will not enjoy the outcome.

  99. Watch the heavens, watch the sky, watch as the days go passing by. “It” will come this I know because a watcher told me so. Now I know what I must do for I have become a watcher too. When you know the end is near, watch and wait for “it” to appear. The watchers know things not of this world. They have been watching man since they were put on this earth. Watch “it’s” coming, will be here soon. Now you’ve been told the watchers are here, watch and wait because this all you can do unless you become a watcher to.

    Remember the watchers are watching you!!!

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