A law that would ban disruptive protests at military funerals awaits President Bush's signature today. It is a reaction to recent protests at dead soldiers' services by religious wackos who say America's military deaths in Iraq result from the USA's permissive attitudes about gay people.
The demonstrators are led by the Rev. Fred Phelps of Topeka, Kansas, a homophobic zealot who has organized protests against AIDS victims and murder victim Matthew Shepard, a gay student whose tortured body was left hanging on a buckrail fence in Wyoming. How bad is he? See his Web site, www.GodHatesFags.com.
I once chatted with Phelps briefly when I was a Denver Post writer, and he agreed to allow me to visit his church for a few days and profile him as he planned another painful, high-profile protest on the anniversary of Matthew Shepard's death. He had become an unexpectedly provocative player in the national drama that enveloped the hate crime.
Unfortunately, Denver Post Editor Greg Moore disagreed, saying only that the man had no followers. He killed the story outright. We never got the chance to pull back the curtain on Phelps and peek into his world, as diseased or righteous as it might be. Moore's decision remains one of those rare moments in my journalism career when I must agree with people who say the mainstream media occasionally services its own prejudices and falls short of giving readers the information they need to make their own decisions.
But here's Phelps -- with enough followers to disrupt military funerals all over America -- causing a federal law to be written. The Denver Post missed its chance to educate and forewarn readers about this movement back in 2002, but Congress has now acted.
The curbs on free speech are odious to me; we didn't establish free speech to protect what we all can all accept and agree upon. We established free speech to allow repugnant expression.
I am sickened by what Rev. Phelps believes and represents. I am also sickened by the failure of my own profession to shine a light on him early on, perhaps when free speech by opponents might have drowned him out. But I am not sure that a law against protest is the right solution.