Westboro Baptist Church members, Satanist participate in journalism course debate

Shirley Phelps-Roper, a member of the Westboro Baptist Church, sits surrounded by media as she talks with Satanist Jex Blackmore (not pictured) in Moore 118 following a debate between the two for a media law class on April 24.

What happens when you bring together five members of the Westboro Baptist Church, one Satanist and a class full of media law students?

Robust debate and controversy, though not all of that was supplied by the guest speakers. 

Central Michigan University journalism professor and department chair Timothy Boudreau brought all these groups together April 24 in Moore Hall room 105 for a discussion in his JRN 404: Law of Mass Communication class.

The journalism professor has annually invited radical speakers to his classroom, including the Westboro Baptist Church in 2010 and 2012. The purpose of these conversations is to demonstrate First Amendment issues and challenge students to explore the fringes of free speech, Boudreau said.

Boudreau opened the discussion by asking students to think critically about the First Amendment. He said the U.S. Supreme Court advocates protection of the press, safeguarding robust, wide-open debate on matters of public interest.

"I think that's what you're going to see here today," Boudreau said. "Uninhibited debate and discussion on matters that I think are of interest to you, like gay rights, abortion, separation of church and state, hate speech (and) symbolic speech."

Students were met with increased security when coming to the class. College of Communications and Fine Arts Associate Dean Andrew Spencer checked student IDs at the door. Only students registered for Boudreau's class were allowed to attend the event. CMU administrators also banned media from covering the classroom discussion. Security and police were stationed at the main entrances of Moore Hall and escorted the speakers from classroom to classroom. 

Sterling Heights senior Drew Forrest, a public relations manager at Central Michigan Life, experienced the increased security firsthand. In the parking lot outside Moore Hall, he noticed Westboro church members and the satanist being escorted to the building with security guards. Forrest stopped searching in his backpack to watch the group pass by. Moments later, a CMU Police Department car pulled up behind him. Forrest was patted down by campus police for looking "suspicious," he said. 

"I continued to look through my backpack, and the cop came up and told me I was looking suspicious and weird, and asked to search me," Forrest said. "He had me put my hands to the car, did a pat search to my entire body, looked through every single packet of my backpack, looked at my ID, and told me I was good to go. It was just surprising that after two seconds of looking at this group, I was already checked out by the police." 

The event was exactly what one might expect from a discussion between the "most hated family in America" and a Satanist. Radical speech was thrown back and forth. Westboro member's ideas were met with laughter and disdain from the room full of college students as the church members preached about America's sins. 

The Kansas-based religious group is famous for protesting with signs that say "God Hates Fags" and "God Sent the Shooter." The church was represented by Shirley Phelps-Roper, daughter of the church's founder, her daughter Rebekah Phelps-Roper and three other members of the church. 

On the other side of the debate was Jex Blackmore, who spoke to the students about her beliefs as a Satanist, although she clarified that she did not come representing the Satanic Temple of Detroit. Despite having been one of the founders of the group, she said she separated to pursue more radical performance activism.

By the end of the class, the ideology of the Satanic Temple seemed to resonate more strongly with the college-student audience than Westboro's did.

"I learned more about the Satanic Temple and what they stand for," said New Baltimore senior Josh Palmer. "The name 'Satanic Temple' is very misleading, as to what we've learned about what they actually believe in."

Palmer asked what the Satanist's "end goal" was in comparison to Westboro's goal of salvation. Blackmore replied by saying their goal is to empower people and provide them with a voice. She said the Satanic Temple does not necessarily worship the Devil, but uses the Devil as a symbol for fighting an "authoritative God." 

"That was so cool," said Warren junior Cara Thomas. "I don't like Westboro. I actually wanted to go talk to the Satanic cult because I felt like they had more articulate things to say. I enjoyed it.  Even though it started out kind of boring, it escalated."

The heated discussion took place from 2-3:15 p.m. Boudreau provided an opportunity for students to speak individually with the two groups briefly after the debate in Moore hall room 118.