Thursday, May 25, 2006

Free speech beyond the grave

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,

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.


SingingSkies said...

People like Phelps perplex me. Even if Jesus had declared homosexuality the most vile sin (which he DIDN'T. He was much more concerned about those who got rich on the backs of the poor and oppressed or who used their religion as a tool to browbeat others.), he would have mourned right alongside the families facing such a great loss rather than hurling epithets in their direction. Jesus' life and message is one of love and forgiveness, not hatred and condemnation. Phelp's actions so completely deny God's love that I just can't understand how he can claim to be a pastor nor can I understand why people are willing to follow such a message of hate.

I am so sorry you were unable to do the story earlier when this viper's fangs might have been more easily pulled. As much as I cheered the removal of his presence from the immediate vicinity of those who already have given up so much, I too cringed at the thought of the possible cost to our citizens' ability to stage free and peaceful protest, even if the protesters' message is one that's completely reprehensible to me.

*very big sigh* I fear that we may be slowly, incrementally giving away all of the rights and freedoms which we have enjoyed for so long. (Though in light of your previous post and my comment in the ensuing discussion on separation of powers, I wonder if this makes me a hypocrite. Probably.) Thank you for the integrity and honest, even painful, questioning that you bring to this space.

Michael Gillespie said...

Well said, Singing Skies.

Anonymous said...

Is this the same Greg Moore who once told a group of Columbine parents that he didn't see what all the fuss was about? What an asshole...

Ron Franscell said...

I've heard that story, but it's hard for me to believe anyone -- especially the editor of a major daily newspaper -- could be that callous.

At any rate, I was no longer in Denver at the time of that alleged quote. I don't know.