Deny Phelps attention he craves

October 6, 2010


Today, the arguments in the case of Snyder v. Phelps will be heard before the Supreme Court of the United States. Margie Phelps, a member of Westboro Baptist Church in Topeka and the daughter of Fred Phelps, will argue that the First Amendment of the Constitution of the United States guarantees that the members of Westboro Baptist may freely continue their protests at the funerals of military personnel who have died in Iraq and Afghanistan.

It is not an easy case from either the legal or political perspective. While First Amendment guarantees are not absolute, they are among the most cherished of all of our freedoms. As a result of this the Phelps have allies, including a number of media groups who fear that any further restrictions on speech, no matter how offensive the speech and its circumstances may be, would be a terrible thing.

There are a number of ironies involved in this case. First, of course, is the fact that the case really involves two First Amendment freedoms, freedom of speech and freedom of religion as implicated in the Snyder family’s right to have an uninterrupted funeral for their son. Perhaps a greater irony is that Fred Phelps himself has declared that he and his congregation have already won because they have gained national attention and more publicity than they could ever have achieved because of the suit.

I believe that what the Phelps family and the Westboro Baptist Church do is obscene, far more so than many sexual displays that have been banned by the courts. Obscenity is not simply something to do with sex or physical violence. The desecration of funeral services for men and women who lost their lives fighting for their country and ideals is, to my mind, just as obscene as anything the adult film industry might produce.

Generally, obscene works, whether in the form of film or live performance, are not protected by the First Amendment. Why, then, should the Westboro Baptist performances, for that is what they are, performances to catch the eye of the media, be protected as free speech?

I have a further thought about this case, however, beyond what is obviously a difficult argument to make. Regardless of what the U.S. Supreme Court may decided in Snyder v. Phelps, there is something we can do. Fred Phelps has made it clear time and time again that his purpose is to gain as much attention as he can. Given the indecency of his latest protests at military funerals, wouldn’t it make sense for the media, every single newspaper, magazine, television channel, every blogger, and tweeter to simply refuse to pay any attention Westboro Baptist’s actions.

Simply freeze them out. Declare they will never again get free publicity. Eventually, when it becomes clear that the media frenzy is over, we may, perhaps, finally stop the Phelps clan by denying them that which they want most.

— Mike Hoeflich, a distinguished professor in the Kansas University School of Law, writes a regular column for the Journal-World. Read his “Grumpy Professor” blog at www2.ljworld.com/search/vertical/weblogs.entry/?q=Hoeflich.


Maddy Griffin 7 years, 6 months ago

Good luck getting the media to go along.

Majestic42 7 years, 6 months ago

A lot of local papers have a standing order to ignore Phelps and his cronies. Since this is a high-level case, it makes sense that they would cover it.

Majestic42 7 years, 6 months ago

A lot of local papers have a standing order to ignore Phelps and his cronies. Since this is a high-level case, it makes sense that they would cover it.

Paul R Getto 7 years, 6 months ago

Good point, GM: The news is entertainment and the people, like crows, like shiny things. The Phelps are not news, but people like to watch constitutional train wrecks. When they quit selling advertising on all the news stations, left, right or middle, we'll know we are making progress. Don't hold your breath.

Amy Heeter 7 years, 6 months ago

The JW has two articles just today on the Phelps. What does that say about them?

sciencegeek 7 years, 6 months ago

It says they aren't as bad as the Topeka Crap-Urinal, who's had them on the front page and in color constantly for the last week. Bad enough that Topeka has to see the nutjobs on every street corner; their cit y newspaper can't get enough of them.

AnnaUndercover 7 years, 6 months ago

Naming them would probably distract from the point of the article.

GUMnNUTS 7 years, 6 months ago

If you would do a little research by looking at FOX news website and reading their story about the case you would see that their parent company is supporting the Phelps.

Michelle Derusseau 7 years, 6 months ago

The Associated Press is also supporting Fred Phelps.

Diana Lee 7 years, 6 months ago

The Phelps hate KU, especially KU Law.

Michelle Derusseau 7 years, 6 months ago

That says a lot about KU and KU Law. I wouldn't want to be on their "friend list"

kansaskate 7 years, 6 months ago

"Phelps and his church are backed in this case by a wide variety of conservative and liberal law professors, by every major media organization in the country, including NPR, and by the American Civil Liberties Union. All deplore his message but defend his right to say even odious things.

"The First Amendment really was designed to protect a debate at the fringes," says ACLU Legal Director Steven Shapiro. "You don't need the courts to protect speech that everybody agrees with, because that speech will be tolerated. You need a First Amendment to protect speech that people regard as intolerable or outrageous or offensive — because that is when the majority will wield its power to censor or suppress, and we have a First Amendment to prevent the government from doing that."


newmedia 7 years, 6 months ago

"Simply freeze them out" and them write a article about them. Sometimes you have to wonder just who wants the attention?

mr_right_wing 7 years, 6 months ago

Hey, they're ashamed of America just like you = kindred spirits.

notajayhawk 7 years, 6 months ago

While I agree in principle that it would be nice to ignore them and hope they'll fade away, I see two problems with that:

1) I doubt they'll just quietly fade away - more likely they'd ramp it up some to get more attention.

2) While the rest of us would like to ignore them, the grieving families trying to mourn their loved ones in peace don't have that option. And just because we're not one of those mourners doesn't mean we should ignore them either - would it be okay to ignore a group of neo-nazis or the acts of a group like the KKK because it didn't personally affect us and only targeted a minority of the population?

gr3sam 7 years, 6 months ago

Mike: for your idea to actually work would require the simultaneous termination of all police-sponsored security details for the Phelps crew at each of their events!

FreeSpeaker 7 years, 6 months ago

Since we are talking about speech, the best response to Phelps, which we used when he infested our community years ago, is more speech. However, we did it using not typical speech. The courts have long held that some actions are considered to be speech, as they express opinion.

Simply put, we mooned him in a huge group moon. This lets him know where we stand, and the media is discouraged from covering (no pun intended) it.

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