Members of the controversial Westboro Baptist Church spoke to journalism students at Central Michigan University Monday. The church is known for protesting at the funerals of U.S. soldiers. The group was invited to speak to journalism law students about how far free speech is protected by the first amendment.
24-year Kyle Elsea helped organize a protest against the group's visit to his school. Elsea served 6 years in the U.S. Army. "I don't care what a person's done; if you're a serial killer I still wouldn't come protest at your funeral. I mean a grieving family is a grieving family," Elsea said. "This man or woman gave their life to protect her freedom of speech so she can go have these protests and now she's going to have the nerve to go to their funeral?" More than 50 protesters joined Elsea, picketing for several hours outside the building where members of the Westboro Baptist Church were speaking.
Church spokeswoman Shirley Phelps-Roper did most of the talking inside the classroom. One student asked if she had any compassion for the grieving families of the soldiers' funerals they protest. Phelps-Roper responded that she's spoken with family members of some of those funerals. "Those people that you say are there grieving? I don't see grief. I see angry rebellion. You've got the people that took that child through his days or her days and led her or him to believe and trust in a lie," Phelps-Roper said. "The great compassion is what you see on those signs. So when you see 'thank God for dead soldiers' you need to understand why we say that." Phelps-Roper says it's because the Bible says to thank God for everything and that mankind deserves death and hell for accepting the homosexual lifestyle. And she says they're just trying to warn the country that God's not joking about obeying his word.
She told students there should be restrictions on free speech but that her church isn't outside the protections of the first amendment. "What we're doing is using traditional public forum. That's what this country is about. We want robust public debate about issues of public interest," Phelps-Roper said.
This month the U.S. Supreme Court heard arguments in a case in which a soldier's family filed suit against the church for protesting their son's funeral in 2006.