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04/07/2010

On Westboro: Our blood wants to boil but our minds have to chill

by Jeremy Hooper

Yesterday on "The View," the Whoopster took an understandably fed up stance when addressing Westboro Baptist Church:

Later in the show, guest Joe Scarborough weighed in with similar thoughts:

And while Whoopi and Joe's hearts are in the right place, unfortunately they, and some of the rest of the panel, are factually off-base.

In truth, Westboro Baptist was 1,000+ feet away from the Maryland funeral, as stipulated by state law. MD actually has one of the most aggressive buffer zone of this type, and the Phelpses respected it. While one can condemn the Phelps family for a number of thing (vitriol, waste of signage, adopting the same staccato voice that makes even the most simple of sentences sound like they came from a dogmatic, condescending robot), one area where they rarely fall short is in regards to compliance with local law. They secure location, permits, police protection, and a whole host of pre-protest needs before they show up anywhere. And when told to move or follow certain rules, we've firsthand seen them casually, and even politely, comply with local law enforcement. So the "they were right outside the funeral" line is just plain wrong. The distance stipulation was, by all accounts, met.

Will the U.S. Supreme Court ultimately side with Westboro once the case comes to them in the fall? Maybe, maybe not. There are other considerations other than distance, a big one being whether their speech is considered personally targeted against the Snyder family or is seen as commentary on "maters of public concern." But those of us who abhor Westboro's antics -- a number that is surely in the 85%+ percentile of American society -- have a responsibility to take on the facts at hand, and look at how those facts play out in an America that does, indeed, protect unpopular and incendiary speech. Most everyone's emotional response is to ask the family how they could ever do such a thing, and to ask the lower court how they could ever side with this deliberately incendiary family. Understandably so. But we are to traffic in fact and law, not emotion and personal distaste. If we on the pro-equality side are going to (rightfully) demand that our organized opposition curb their emotional reactions to our civil fairness, then we are going to have to also use the constitution rather than our gag meters when dealing with the family Phelps.

It's not easy to look at their signs, take a breath, and respond with a rational basis. Nobody knows this more than this writer, who has been dealing with the Pehlps family in print, in email, in public, on Twitter, etc., for quite some time. But it is imperative that we do so.

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