Fred Phelps’s Westboro Baptist Church is an alarming coven of zealots. Somehow they find the energy to picket everything from Comic-Con (“an excuse for whores to wear skimpy get-ups”) to the funeral of Mr. Rogers (for teaching tolerance to children) to the Golden Globe Awards (because “people chase after frivolity and vanity when they ought to turn back to their Lord Jesus Christ and Repent and Obey”). Prejudiced in the broadest sense, they maintain that Catholics are the “most hateful people on earth”; Muhammad was a “whoremonger”; and “Jews are the real Nazis.”
It’s not surprising, then, that the Supreme Court created a stir with its recent holding in Snyder v. Phelps that freedom of expression precludes the government from punishing Westboro for picketing the funerals of private citizens with hateful epithets. The opinion, however, is quite narrow—the Court held only that the political content of Westboro’s rhetoric was protected by the First Amendment against torts of intentional infliction of emotional distress—and the popular impression that Westboro is now free to shout its fire and brimstone at funerals willy-nilly is misleading. Indeed, in the incident in question, Westboro complied with police requests to stay 1,000 feet from the funeral, and all but the tops of its members’ signs were hidden from mourners’ view.
What is most interesting, therefore, about Westboro’s social challenge was not really in the suit. Indeed, the general revulsion at the Snyder decision is probably underwritten less by the particulars of the case than by concerns about the Phelps family’s sanity: about their ghoulish haunting of funerals, their open calls for hatred, the sad plight of the smallest of their children holding God Hates Fags signs, as well as the enormous publicity that always attends such a sorry little band. The issues at stake go beyond free speech and touch on communications technology, profit, celebrity and mental health. Consider, for example, what happened in the wake of Jared Lee Loughner’s rampage in Tucson, when it was reported that the Westboro church “agreed” not to protest at the funerals of the shooting victims. But agreement implies agency, rationality, capacity to contract. How did Westboro—which claims to have picketed more than 44,000 events in more than 813 cities—suddenly become so “agreeable,” anyway?
As it turned out, there was indeed an explicit bargain not to protest in exchange for airtime on two radio stations. Arrangements like this have worked for Westboro before; most notoriously, it received lots of airtime in exchange for not picketing the funerals of five Amish schoolgirls killed by a gunman in 2006. Margie Phelps, a lawyer for the church, said that such contracts were made based on how much publicity they would get: “It’s how many ears we can reach. That is our job; that is our goal.”
That Westboro was not at the Arizona funerals was good news, but the transaction behind it is worrisome. Conservative host Mike Gallagher, one of the radio personalities who “donated” an hour on his show, said, “I don’t like the idea of giving them the satisfaction of this, but I believe my radio airwaves are less important than them hurting families.” But Gallagher’s nationally syndicated show reaches millions of listeners. Was Westboro’s absence really “worth” such broad access to so “many ears”? Gallagher positioned “his” airwaves as some kind of chit to be traded according to no bounds but his own. The deal had more than a whiff of extortion about it, like children who declare that they will stop screaming only if their parents let them have that candy bar NOW! What’s at work is less free speech than plain old bullying, shot through with entertainment value—a show that will get everyone’s juices jumping, better than a fistfight on Jerry Springer.