Thursday, October 9, 2008

I'm sure even those of you not from Kansas have heard of our Phelps clan. The Phelps clan lives and works in Topeka, with their Westboro Baptist Church as their hive. They are known throughout the nation as those wacky gay-haters whose disturbed ideology leads them to protest at soldiers' funerals. It seems that each dead soldier (and each blown-up space shuttle and each hurricane, etc.) is a welcome blessing from god who is trying desperately to punish us for our sinful, gay-accepting ways so that we can all repent and save our souls before we die.

Here in Kansas, they do a lot more than just protest military funerals. They can be seen regularly, protesting outside random businesses, courts, and public events that have media coverage. I've even seen them protesting outside a high school. (I don't know what that high school or school board had done -- probably allowed a book with a homosexual character to remain in the library.) Their chants are hate-filled. Their signs bear awful slogans and rather vile stick figures. They include all of their children in their protests. No matter how many times you see them, it's always jarring to see kids whole-heartedly participating in this stuff.

It makes no sense. They're awful, hateful, and generally considered a huge embarrassment to our state. (I'd say they're more embarrassing than our evolution fight.) I wish they'd all just shut up already. I won't be sad when Daddy, Fred, dies, and I sincerely hope the church (which is almost entirely made up of just this large family) folds.

But I don't want to use the courts to silence them. That seems like a bit of a First Amendment problem to me. Courts should not be in the business of putting vile protesters out of business. I'm troubled enough by the lawsuits families of dead soldiers have filed. A family in Maryland won a huge judgment against the clan that could bankrupt the whole lot. I personally think it would be a travesty if that judgment stands because I don't think an exercise of speech, no matter how despicable the actual message, should be considered "infliction of emotional distress" in a civil lawsuit.

My bigger beef right now, though, is with a prosecutor in Nebraska who is attempting to prosecute one of the main family members for flag desecration and child endangerment. The incident occurred at a military funeral protests. Shirley Phelps-Roper wore an American flag as a skirt that dragged on the ground. She further let her 10 year-old son stand on a flag. My question is: where the hell is the crime? Like it or not, using a flag (your own, personal property) as a prop at a protest to symbolize your discontent with some aspect of government is the exact kind of political speech the First Amendment was meant to protect. The fact is that this prosecutor is going after this woman simply because he or she hates her message. The prosecutor wants to silence the defendant. I agree completely that the message is despicable. But using the criminal justice system to punish them because you hate their message is a far more despicable act than anything the Phelps did at this funeral.

The United States Supreme Court has already held that flag desecration is protected speech and the context of this protest wouldn't seem to provide any legitimate basis for the court to somehow distinguish this fact pattern and allow it to be criminal in this case. Knowing that precedent exists, how can any prosecutor think it right to charge someone for flag desecration at a protest? That prosecutor is on thin ethical ice in pursuing a criminal charge that s/he ought to know violates the most fundamental of rights. The district court simply has to grant the defendant's motion to dismiss the case. I don't want to have to live next to a state that would allow such a blatantly unconstitutional prosecution proceed to trial. I don't want to have to live in a country where people like the Phelps' can't peacefully state their message without fear of governmental action against them.

I wish I didn't have to hear their message. But I want to be free from it because they've collectively seen the light or they've just faded away. I would much rather listen to their hate-filled chants than be forced to live with their court-imposed silence.

1 comment:

Lee said...

I think you should organize a make-out fest in front of their church. Get as many gays and lesbians as you can to publicly display as much affection as they can (I mean really go at it, junior high spin the bottle style) in front of their church each Sunday.

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