Westboro Baptist Church and the ten-mile proposition
By Paul A. Ibbetson
The Westboro Baptist Church… need I say more? The nation watches as the Supreme Court deliberates on the limits of free speech in America involving the right of families to bury the dead in peace versus the need of the little Kansas cult to disrupt military funerals and tell grieving families that their dearly departed are going to hell. Going to hell, mind you, because somewhere in the world, a homosexual exists.
The rhyme or reason behind the actions of the Westboro sign-wavers is so contradictory to the Bible and to logic itself that their actions may never be brought to a reasonable understanding. The big head shaker when it comes to this group of peculiar proselytes is Westboro's overwhelming indifference to actually bringing any converts into their fold. This group shows up at a location and tells people the equivalency of, "God hates you, you're going to hell and we're not; have a nice day." This appears to be the Westboro mission statement. I know; I live only 40 miles from these dirty damnation designators and their central compound in Topeka, Kansas. I have had them shake their signs at me in Wichita, Kansas, while attempting to go to church, and I have been in spitting distance of them at Kansas State University. I interviewed Shirley Phelps-Roper on my radio program Conscience of Kansas in 2008 and I still receive positive feedback from YouTube viewers who enjoy the moments when I turn Phelps-Roper's microphone off to break up her rants and filibustering.
The point here is not to rehash a debate about the deviant inner workings of the Westboro Baptist Church; I would not drag readers into that gutter. The point is also not to have a high noon theologian-style standoff with WBC on who will get their comeuppance come judgment day. What is of importance here is whether this country should allow WBC to continue to harangue military families and call it free speech. Do we undermine the Constitution and what the First Amendment stands for if we say that unpopular speech, even the near-fighting words of WBC, can be squelched? Westboro, as the Saul Alinksy tacticians that they are, now bank on our Constitution to save them in their hour of need. Should they be silenced at the risk of silencing legitimate voices down the road in places like the Internet, Tea Party gatherings, and conservative talk radio?
Detroit Free Press columnist Mitch Albom laments about the Westboro issue and comes to a couple of interesting conclusions with which I partially agree. First, Albom concludes that the Supreme Court will most likely rule on the side of the Westboro Baptist Church. I agree that this will happen. Based on this conclusion, Albom forwards the idea that the current state laws pushing protestors to distances of 500 feet or more should be changed for groups like Westboro to 10 miles. Albom's idea is that at that distance, Westboro would be made ineffective and they would give up their activities due to a lack of attention.
At first thought this might seem like the way to go, and my knee-jerk reaction, like Albom's, is to make "distance" the defense for military families from Westboro's brand of hateful speech. But alas, after further thought I believe that this would not bring about the desired effect and might possibly have a myriad of unintended negative consequences. We have to recognize that Westboro members, like a nest of vipers, are extremely crafty. They know the law and they use it to their advantage very effectively. If they were physically banned for 10 miles they would most likely affix jumbotrons to public walkways where they could flash their signs and scream insults at the dead via satellite. The point is that they would not give in, they would not give up; they would adapt to the letter of the law to continue their protests. Worse yet, the slippery slope issue is again brought forth. These are the points where Albom's strategy fails to hit the mark.
Despite my disagreement with the current option, I do not come to the table without any solutions to the Westboro question. Westboro should be shut down, but not on the issue of free speech. They should be shut down because their protests are in fact an act of treason. Westboro's military protests are open acts of treachery and clearly a breach of allegiance to the nation. Westboro, through their psychological warfare against the military, show a clear pattern of undermining the war effort and thus aid and comfort the enemy. Akin to passing out pamphlets at military recruiting stations to join al-Qaida, Westboro passes out the threat to American families that if their children serve and die for this country, their cult may be attending the funeral. WBC protests disrupt communities, turn the local populace against the police who must protect the protestors from annihilation, and bring never-ending pain and anguish to grieving families of fallen soldiers. Arguably worse, Westboro's funeral protests plant the seeds of fear into America's bravest families who can only wonder if their fallen loved one will be the next on the Westboro Baptist Church hit list.
In the end, we can and should leave the Constitution uncut and uncompromised on this heated issue. I guess you could say that when it comes to the Westboro Baptist Church, the answer is already on the books, and jail will bring far more justice than the 10-mile proposition.
Paul A. Ibbetson is a former Chief of Police of Cherryvale, Kansas, and member of the Montgomery County Drug Task Force. Paul received his Bachelor's and Master's degrees in Criminal Justice at Wichita State University, and is currently completing his Ph.D. in Sociology at Kansas State University. Paul is the author of the books "Living Under The Patriot Act: Educating A Society" and "Feeding Lions: Sharing The Conservative Philosophy In A Politically Hostile World." Paul is also the radio host of the Kansas Broadcasting Association's 2008, 2009 and 2010 Entertainment Program of the Year, Conscience of Kansas airing on KSDB Manhattan 91.9 FM. For interviews or questions, please contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.