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LETTERS: Readers express concern over Westboro Baptist Church visit

I admit I was a little shocked when I found out about professor Tim Boudreau’s plan to bring leaders of Westboro Baptist Church to CMU.

Universities are places where ideas should be discussed and challenged, and perhaps this is an opportunity to educate.

I graduated from CMU in 1982 with a degree in journalism. I am a former staff writer and photographer for CM Life. Following graduation I served in the U.,S. Navy and spent five years on active duty.

When I left active duty, I came home and attended mortuary school at Wayne State University and joined my family becoming a fourth-generation funeral director. I now own our family business in Battle Creek. I also concurrently served 20 years in the Navy Reserve, retiring in 2005 as a public affairs officer. I’ve always been a staunch supporter of freedom of speech and the First Amendment.

As a Navy officer, I stood watch the day more than more than 225 Marines were blown up in Beirut, Lebanon

As a funeral director, I’ve buried two Michigan casualties from Iraq; a young soldier and recently an airman and CMU student who gave their lives in defense of freedom.

Naturally, I was very concerned when I made funeral arrangements for the first casualty. What would happen if the protestors from Westboro, Kansas showed up? I admit I was worried. These people are despicable, warped and so far off the mark. The fact the family has to deal with this nonsense is repulsive and unconscionable to me as a funeral director and a military man.

After having some discussions with law enforcement and people who’ve gone through this before, my fears were calmed that they would “handle” things. They also assured me that the Patriot Guard Riders will be here to help shield the family and they told me the PGR has the same First Amendment rights as the protestors and the PGR know exactly what to do.

The PGR is a group of concerned motorcyclists, mostly veterans, who network and utilize the same First Amendment rights that the Westboro group, in my opinion, abuses. They shield mourners with American Flags from seeing the protestors and if need be they rev up their bikes to drown them out. About 100 of the PGR showed up at my funeral home for that first funeral service.

In the first service we handled, the family never saw the people from Westboro because of the PGR. The local police also kept a close eye on the protestors and most police agencies are well-informed on what the legal limits are. Nothing usually happens when everyone does their job. On the second service, close to 200 PGR arrived for the funeral and Westboro did not. It was a thrilling tribute as 200 motorcycles with American flags followed the family to the National Cemetery.

Freedom of speech and the right to peacefully assemble are powerful and fundamental rights that, if restricted, would harm the Patriot Guard Riders as much as any protester. We shouldn’t tamper with it.

Yes, what these people do is twisted, immoral and disrespectful, but the First Amendment and the Constitution are bigger than they are. As much as many of us abhor this form of protest, the First Amendment lives and, if restricted, would go both ways.

Ironically, the young Americans who have died in these wars have fought for the rights of the protestors from Westboro as well as your right to speak out and protest injustice. I hope you do so in the loudest and most emphatic way possible. It’s the very best way you can honor those who have died for us and those who continue to serve our great nation and its ideals.

I hope this is a valuable learning experience and I hope the campus is prepared to handle this event. I’d be willing to bet there will be a few bikers in town!

T.R. Shaw, Jr.

1982 alumni

On November 1, 2010, Shirley Phelps-Roper of the Westboro Baptist Church will be on campus to speak in three journalism classes about the First Amendment right to free speech.

This group has been identified as a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center and has a history of protesting the funerals of fallen soldiers and also the funerals of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender individuals, who have been murdered because of their sexual orientation or gender identity. The most notable funeral protest of the Westboro Baptist Church was for Matthew Sheperd, who was murdered in October of 1998.

Central Michigan University believes that creating an environment that supports teaching and learning is a top priority, so this instructor has the right to bring in speakers to his classroom that he deems germane to the subject matter. The university is also committed to providing educational experiences and programs that enhance diversity and global perspectives. As such, I am writing to voice my concerns with this particular invitation.

The concern with the Westboro Baptist Church being on campus is the hate they bring toward military men and women, other religious organizations and LGBTQ individuals. CMU promotes an inclusive environment that is supportive of all students, faculty and staff. It is difficult to imagine how bringing their message to campus is supportive of this institutional value. For those in the class or not in the class that want to reach out for support, please be aware of the resources you have on campus. The Counseling Center can be reached at 774-3381, The Office of Gay and Lesbian Programs can be reached at 774-3637 and The Office of Institutional Equity and Civil Rights can be reached at 774-3254.

We all have the ability to exercise our right to free speech and this can be done in a variety of ways. I encourage you as CMU students, faculty and staff to promote diversity and inclusion on campus.

Shannon M. Jolliff

Director of Gay and Lesbian Programs