Westboro member speaks to journalists about free speech
By Sally Ann Moyer
NEW YORK CITY — College journalists explored First Amendment issues Monday afternoon at the College Media Advisers’ 2011 spring college media convention at the Marriot Marquis Times Square.
The recent Supreme Court 8-1 decision to allow Westboro Baptist Church and others to protest at funerals spurred a special session titled “Westboro Speaks.”
Gene Policinski, senior vice president and executive director of the First Amendment Center, interviewed Margie Phelps, attorney and daughter of Fred Phelps Sr., founder of Westboro Baptist Church in Topeka, Kan.
“The greater evil for those of you who disagree with her message is if we weren’t able to hear her message at all,” Policinski said. “That’s not an endorsement, but it’s also not an attack.”
Michael Koretzky, convention director, opened the session with a reminder that the protection of Westboro Baptist Church’s First Amendment rights matters to journalists.
Policinski began by asking Phelps where to draw the line between what someone can, but should not, say.
“There’s an unspoken aspect of the First Amendment that says, in effect, to most Americans: you could, but should you?” Policinski asked.
Phelps disagreed on the basis of individual liberty.
“The First Amendment doesn’t get an opinion on ‘should’,” Phelps said. “It’s not the government’s business on should, it’s a matter of your conscience.”
Phelps also emphasized her belief that Westboro has consistently followed the law.
“One of those rock solid things is that we were following the law; we knew the law,” Phelps said.
Austin King, the opinion editor of the newspaper at Daytona State College, supported Phelps’ right to free speech.
“Her rights are there for her to say what she said. I don’t feel like she’s breaking any laws,” King said.
However, he disagreed with the convention’s decision to bring Phelps as a speaker.
“After sitting in on this session, my biggest problem is that we brought her to it,” King said.
He originally planned to write a First Amendment story with references to Westboro Baptist Church for his school’s newspaper, but will now leave out any mention of the church.
“I think if I wrote about this, then I’m helping her,” King said.
Eddie Damon, a student journalist at Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts, said he believes the press should continue to report on Westboro Baptist Church when relevant.
“I think the press can do it objectively and not sensationalize it. It’s still important for the press to talk about it,” Damon said.
Mary Redstone, also a student journalist at Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts, agreed with the need for current coverage.
“If that Supreme Court case hadn’t happened, then yes we’re feeding her, but it’s totally relevant,” Redstone said.
Phelps also offered support of the Supreme Court decision furthering the right of homosexuals and other dissenters to counter-protest Westboro Baptist Church.
When one student journalist asked her opinion, Phelps replied that it made her feel as “happy as a clam at high tide.”
Students also recognized universal First Amendment benefits derived from the Supreme Court case.
“I think the court case itself definitely helped in a round about way,” King said. “Westboro has helped cement the First Amendment.”
While Damon disagreed with Phelps’ message, he supported her freedom of speech.
“Both sides have so much emotion, and there was no likelihood of us meeting halfway. The only thing we agree on at the end was that the First Amendment protects important rights,” Damon said.
Phelps also warned student journalists to protect the First Amendment.
“Your country will shred the First Amendment,” Phelps said.
Redstone thinks the Supreme Court’s Westboro decision will open the door for more freedom of the speech at all levels, including high school.
“I think we can take something good out of it, that if they can go around saying stuff like that, then we can write about more touchy subjects,” Redstone said.