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Dublin: 13 °C Tuesday 14 July, 2020
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Column: Fred Phelps’ hateful legacy is a gift to freedom and democracy

Many people loathed the Westboro Baptist Church’s message, but the USA rightfully protected their right to be seen and heard, writes Aaron McKenna.

Aaron McKenna

THE FOUNDER OF the Westboro Baptist Church, Fred Phelps, has died aged 84. His legacy is one of an attention-seeking hate monger who seemed to be most interested in self-promotion for its own sake.

He is a rare individual in that he will not be missed by many at all who knew of his life’s work. There are more than a few who will wish him an afterlife in hell. Personally I would prefer to imagine a hereafter spent in the embrace of a benevolent God who does in fact love fags, dead soldiers and all the other people that Phelps trolled during his long life of controversy. The God I was raised with is, for all our imperfect human corruptions of religion, a merciful sort.

Ordained at 17 and since then expelled from the religious orders he was associated with bar his self-founded church of hate, Phelps was a successful lawyer until he was disbarred from that profession also for his spiteful ways.

Westboro and civil rights

Phelps and his ‘church’ won a few notable civil rights cases in their day. Notably, the US Supreme Court recently ruled that his gang of thugs could not be sued for inflicting pain on grieving families.

On the face of it, this seems abhorrent. Westboro has rubbed countless grains of salt into the wounds of families who have lost a loved one to wars or the scourge of Aids. These families do not deserve such treatment and the members of Westboro are a sickeningly degenerate lot for inflicting it.

But in a way, Phelps gifted the society he sought to tarnish with something important: a reaffirmation of the freedoms that are the foundation of any truly open and democratic society. Westboro is an aberration, probably not one of a kind but close enough if you exclude copycats. Society has not collapsed into a morass of spitefulness sparked by an evangelical message of a vengeful God.

Quite the opposite, in fact. In response to Westboro many groups sprung up in far greater numbers to honour the dead that Phelps sought to denigrate. Unfortunately our news media thrives on negativity more than positivity, and the sight of Phelps clan children holding “God Hates Fags” signs at a funeral got more traction than the thousand acts of kindness and love that went on around it.

For all its ills, I firmly believe that on balance the world is a fundamentally good place with good people in it. Phelps did more to remind me of that than he ever did manage to sow any seed of grief in my heart. That was not his intended gift, but it is the one that was received.

Freedom of expression

So, too, Westboro has been a litmus test for just how seriously the United States takes freedom of expression. Banning Westboro or severely restricting its activities in law would not be an unpopular thing to do. In Ireland and many other democratic countries the mechanisms exist to effectively stymie a group like Westboro should it decide to show its ugly head. This is, in one way, unfortunate.

Hard cases make bad law, and mechanisms to bar a group like Westboro can never be specific enough to prevent future misuse. In any event, the very precedent is a mechanism in and of itself. In Ireland we actually live under some very restrictive laws with regard to freedom of speech and expression, but they are mostly ignored by precedent these days. Nevertheless, laws such as the one to punish blasphemy are possible in a country that would not pass the Westboro litmus test: if we wouldn’t allow someone like Fred Phelps to spread a message we find distasteful, we have created the mechanism to stifle a message that is simply controversial. Indeed, if Phelps had ever operated on these shores there is a decent chance that the famously controversial blasphemy laws would have been invoked in any attempt to shut him down.

I’ve written in the past about Ireland’s highly qualified right to free speech in our constitution. You can say what you like, so long as it doesn’t offend the morals of the nation that are open to interpretation according to the fashion of the day.

This might save us from torments like the ones Phelps gifted his countrymen, but we did not see the United States descent into anarchy for all that. Instead we saw a reaffirmation of the fundamental good in the majority of people, who loathed the sight of Westboro but whose laws protected their right to be seen just as it protects the rights of more deserving sorts.

Aaron McKenna is a businessman and a columnist for TheJournal.ie. He is also involved in activism in his local area. You can find out more about him at aaronmckenna.com or follow him on Twitter @aaronmckenna. To read more columns by Aaron click here.

Read: Fred Phelps, the founder of the Westboro Baptist Church, has died

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