Trust Me, I’m a Doctor: Despite hatred, free speech reigns

Mark Leeper

If you believe everything you read on the internet (which I most assuredly do), the controversial founder of the Westboro Baptist Church is near death in a Topeka hospice.

The once fiery preacher, whose congregation picketed a staggering 53,000 events through his lifetime, appears to be lurching into the sweet hereafter wrapped in obscurity and indignity, rendered mute by illness and reportedly excommunicated by the Westboro church leadership.

There are lessons to be learned through Mr. Phelps’ life.

First, there appears to be a natural, electric connection between 60-some inter-related Kansas nutjobs, whose in-fellowship procreation apparently cleansed themselves of the “Reason Gene,” with 24/7 cable news, where perhaps the same absence of judgment abounds.

The conflict, the utter spectacle of spitting Kansans hoisting signs proclaiming “God Hates Fags” and “Thank God for 9/11,” well, it was good TV.

Never mind that Phelps’ doctrine was patently absurd.

Westboro Baptist Church founder Fred Phelps is reportedly on the brink of death.
Baptist Church founder Fred Phelps is reportedly on the brink of death.

Sort of like the thought of the Nebraska Cornhuskers winning an NCAA tournament game.

A more rational argument would be God is rebuking us for electing a child-like Texan with his Rasputin-like, clench-jawed neocon VEEP who whispered in his ear about “getting Hussein.”

But that’s a different issue.

It is still astounding to me this vile-spewing group of inter-related Kansans made such a national splash. I mean, at any given protest, it was Phelps, a daughter or two, with 3-4 grandchildren in tow, mindfully obtaining all permits and observing all demonstration regulations, screaming “Fag Enablers!”

But, in the end, it shows how crafty these high plains nutjobs were, they knew how to push buttons, pique emotions, generate a made-for-TV spectacle and avoid arrest.

Which brings me to my second point. The Westboro side story is that America embraces and celebrates free speech and the free marketplace of ideas. And that is a good thing. Those offended by the church’s assertive insanity tried to muzzle their expression.

The United States Supreme Court, in Snyder v. Phelps, aggressively pushed back.

In this country, we do NOT allow government to shut down speech based on the “worth” of the idea; in fact, government suppression of Phelps’ garbage would have afforded it a legitimacy and strength it didn’t deserve.

But the primary point: government is NOT to be in the business of weighing and determining the “value” of ideas.

Justice Roberts concluded in Phelps, “Speech is powerful. It can stir people to action, move them to years of both joy and sorrow and—as it did here—inflict great pain…we cannot react to the pain by punishing the speaker.

As a nation, we have chosen a different course—to protect even hurtful speech on public issues to ensure we do not stifle public debate.”

In the end, we did not succumb to our baser impulses (as Westboro did long ago) and use government power to suppress ideas.

That is not the American way.

We allowed Phelps’ speech to run its course—to be rejected in the public marketplace of ideas.
Predictably, Phelps dies an ignoble and startlingly quiet death.