If there was an award for “Biggest Jerk of the Decade,” Fred Phelps probably would have won a time or two. He was a hateful, petty man who indoctrinated small children into his world of judgement and hypocrisy.

Unfortunately for all of us, especially the family members of those whose funerals his church protested, Fred Phelps won’t soon be forgotten. His use of First Amendment protection has been called abusive and downright evil by some, but ultimately all of the lawsuits that funded his Westboro Baptist Church served to set a precedent of just how far we are covered under our First Amendment rights.

Phelps has seen his share of imitators. We have seen them on TJC campus as well, but we’ve also seen localized pushback by Christians who want to show that a hateful message isn’t the best or only way to bring people to their religion.

In the days leading to his death, the LGBT community responded with an outpouring of love and tolerance. The people Phelps hated the most forgave him for the abuse he heaped on their community over the years.

There will always be men like Fred Phelps. Someone else will step into the spotlight to fill the void he has left, but silencing them is not the answer. Understanding why they’re allowed to do such things is what we need to take away from this man’s life.

Without the right to safely demonstrate your First Amendment rights, how long do you think you could hold onto your others? Without a voice, how can we even question whether or not we’re seeing fair votes for office?

A country that doesn’t allow men like Phelps to speak out, is a country that has the authority to silence anyone. We cherish our democracy and free society, well this is part of it. Look to Russia and the way they still silence political opponents. Nelson Mandela spent half his life in prison fighting for the right to have his voice heard.

This is why Fred Phelps matters. This is why the hateful, vocal minority is allowed to say the horrible things that they do. In our country we tend to see organizations like the Westboro Baptist Church as dangerous. But in countries where the right to speak your mind and protest aren’t consitutionally guaranteed, people advocating for equality or against oppressive governments are the ones that are dangerous.

Our service members lay down their lives to guarantee us these rights. It is no small sacrifice that they are making when they have to watch their friends’ deaths be celebrated by the WBC.

We can’t pick and choose who gets to practice free speech, just like we shouldn’t be picking and choosing who our society treats as equals. So if seeing occasional bigotry is the price I have to pay for being able to fight for equality, then you can be sure that it is a price I’m willing to pay. I can pay that price because I know that countless Americans before me paid a far greater price to secure the ideals we strive to live by.

The Phelps family has set an astonishingly distasteful precedent, but it is a precedent nonetheless. Their right to be generally bad people guarantees our right to push back.

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