Associate Professor of Journalism Tim Boudreau likes to follow a tradition of inviting a controversial speaker to his classes each semester to better demonstrate an understanding of the freedom of speech.
This semester, Boudreau has scheduled a return appearance for the Westboro Baptist Church of Topeka, Kan. to come speak at Central Michigan University on April 23.
“Students are excited about having a chance to talk, discuss and debate with people who are in the news and with whom they disagree,” Boudreau said. “I might say that folks shouldn’t confuse my allowing them to speak with my endorsing what they have to say.”
Shirley Phelps-Roper, daughter of the church’s founder Fred Phelps, will be returning for her second visit to CMU. She first appeared on campus, along with daughters Megan and Rebekah, in November 2010.
“The first time was … wow, amazing,” Phelps-Roper said by phone Tuesday. “There was a lot of interaction and a lot of intensity, and we were very thankful for the opportunity to speak to those people. We couldn’t have asked for anything more than just that.”
This time around, Shirley will be accompanied by her brother Fred Phelps Jr., daughter-in-law Jennifer Phelps-Roper and another member of the church.
The family gained acknowledgment for protesting at funerals of American military members killed in combat, as well as the BBC documentary “The Most Hated Family in America.”
“I bring in groups who illustrate concepts we talk about in class, and I think few groups better illustrate the limits of free expression than Westboro Baptist Church,” Boudreau said.
Both of his JRN 101: Mass Communications classes are scheduled to hear from the family, as well as his JRN 404: Law of Mass Communication class.
The event will be a closed class setting, though open by invitation for a small group outside those enrolled in the courses.
“I’ve had people ask if their friends can come in, and I welcome and encourage that,” he said. “The number of people we let in will depend on the size of the room and what campus police think, but unfortunately we can’t open it up to the general public.”
Boudreau said the family was happy to accept the invitation, a contrast from their usual procedures of showing up to events unexpectedly. Shirley said invited or not, it’s all done for God.
“With the eyes we have, you will see all of it as works of God, and he does this thing in one place and that thing in another place,” she said. “They are all results with preaching the gospel of the kingdom of Heaven to the whole world.”
The main topic of discussion will be wrapped around freedom of speech, protected under the First Amendment, which the members of the Westboro Baptist Church are well educated on.
“I’m a lawyer and so is Fred, Jr.,” Shirley said. “Of my parent’s 13 kids, 11 are lawyers. That First Amendment is the crowning jewel of all gifts given to this country by God.”
Boudreau said he didn’t feel people should refuse to pay speakers who are unpopular, because the campus would find itself rather quiet.
That being said, he said the Westboro Baptist Church members didn’t ask for compensation during their last visit, and he doesn’t expect that will change this semester.