Westboro Baptist Church members exemplify limits of free speech in return to CMU


The "most hated family in America" returned to Central Michigan University Monday.

Associate Professor of Journalism Tim Boudreau invited Westboro Baptist Church of Topeka, Kan., to speak to three journalism classes to illustrate the "outer limits" of the First Amendment.

The group became nationally known for protesting soldiers' funerals following 9/11 with signs reading "God hates fags" and  "Thank God for dead soldiers."

"They raise a lot of questions about how much speech we should protect, and whether we, as a nation, would be better off if we restricted their offensive speech," Boudreau said.

In 2011, the group won a U.S. Supreme Court case, which ruled their hate speech was protected by the First Amendment.

Shirley Phelps-Roper first appeared on campus, along with daughters Megan and Rebekah, in November 2010.

Shirley, along with her brother and Pastor Fred Phelps Jr., daughter-in-law Jennifer Phelps-Roper and church member Taylor Drain, junior at Washburn University, visited CMU this time around.

"We know that this is a generation full of rebelling against God," Shirley said.

The members argued with students, proclaiming God hates Catholics, the United States military and the gay and lesbian community.

"Every dime you give (to a Catholic Church) pays a pedophile priest," Shirley said.

Hopkins freshman Elizabeth Roberts told the group her plans to start basic training at the Air Force by the end of the summer.

"...You will be fighting for same sex marriage and for a nation that has made God its number one enemy," Shirley said.

Roberts said the dead soldiers give them the right to do what they do.

"Then shut up while we exercise them," Shirley said.

Reflecting on the event, Roberts said she did not think Shirley and the group understood the point she was trying to make.

"I don't even know what to say," she said.

Several students noticed the group members using their iPhones, and asked questions.

Steve Jobs was given a gift from God, Shirley said. Anyone using an iPhone, iPad or Mac for anything other than to serve God is misusing it.

Fred said the group has been picketing for 21 years on the streets, engaged in 48,000 pickets in all 50 states, and spent millions of dollars of their own money.

When asked if they feel like giving up on spreading their message due to major opposition, Fred said no.

"I'm 59 years old, don't tell me I don't love this country," he said. "I've done more to tell this country the truth."

Shirley said after living for more than 50 years, she knows the destruction and mayhem in the world today is unprecedented.

Boudreau, a member of the CMU Media Board, disagreed.

"I grew up in Flint, Mich., and we had a lot of problems then and we have a lot of problems now," he said.

The WBC has been banned from the United Kingdom and condemned by the Ku Klux Klan.

The sessions were held at 2 p.m., 3:30 p.m. and 5 p.m. in the Park Library Auditorium.


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