Saturday, October 2, 2010

Emotional Vandalism vs. Freedom Of Speech: Will The Malice That Embodies Fred Phelps Prevail?

Note: On Wednesday, Oct. 6th, the Supreme Court of The United States will hear oral arguments in the case of Snyder vs. Westboro Baptist Church.

Fred Phelps has now gotten exactly what he's always wanted: notoriety. From the time he threw the first punch at an attendee of  a revival (at age 17, his first preaching gig was to a Mormon group and someone didn't exactly agree with him), he's always courted fame. Fame through controversy. Fame through hate.

I've followed Fred's trail for over 14 years. The first time I encountered Phelps was as a book publicist for Fr. Daniel Helmeniak, author of the book, What the Bible Really Says About Homosexuality. Helmeniak is an eminent Jesuit scholar who knew about Phelps and his homophobic rantings, so I was able to get Daniel on a radio show in Kansas City, MO. with Phelps debating him on the subject. Phelps was in the studio while Daniel was on a phone hook-up.

The interview was a typical Phelpsian circus with the Phelps clan picketing the radio station (allegedly for broaching the subject of homosexuality). During the interview, Daniel played the sweet, but thoroughly academic professional, politely asking Phelps which "pages" his Biblical sitings were on (knowing full well that Phelps had made them up). Frustrated Phelps grew impatient when the time came for questions from listeners who seemed to share Daniel's knowledge and sophistication. He stormed out of the station in less than twenty minutes. The host, however, kept Daniel on - for a full 90 minutes  - because the call lines were heating up (the program had only been scheduled for thirty minutes).

Phelps deemed the radio spot a "success." He's a hit-and-run publicity man.

A year after Daniel's interview, I came across an unpublished manuscript attached to a deposition as Exhibit A in a court case. It was an unauthorized biography of Fred Phelps. I read all 140 pages overnight.

To label Fred Phelps as evil is ridiculous, simply because, much like any real monster, Phelps' persona is beyond labeling. If Phelps' soul can be labeled anything, the closest definition would be grotesque: it is misshapen, hideous in its deformity; repulsive. Visually, it is like The Elephant Man, but without the slightest trace of humanity. And while Hitler had a disfigured conscience, Fred Phelps seems to have no conscience at all. He delights in both hating and being hated. He is a true egotist.

And as such, he hungers not for blood, but for publicity.

It is true that he used his exemplary speaking skills to defend civil rights cases. However, upon close examination, his oratory was meant to focus only on himself: one of the breaches of ethics he was cited for  in his disbarment was that if a client couldn't pay Fred's fees after losing a case, he would automatically turn around and sue the client. So very many of these cases came up, it was rumored that Phelps's primary income was derived from these turnabouts. 

For the last half century, Fred Phelps and his clan have alternated between bizarre soap opera and embarrassing nuisance for Topeka, KS: addiction to amphetamines, charges of a Fagin operation (involving the Phelps children), beatings, starvation, threats of knee-capping (with a .48), severe whippings, extortion, insidious and violent revenge on colleagues and neighbors, thwarted flights to freedom - all emanating from the martinet  who refused to give his children Christmas presents, demanded that all of them have law degrees, chose their spouses ... and made them believe he was their only portal to heaven. 

There are times when hatred makes a person either crazy or stupid. Hatred is, after all, a very negating emotion, canceling out anything positive. Hatred is man's most insipid emotion simply because it is so counter to survival. In the eyes of America, Fred Phelps has not only done things out of pure hatred,  but a total disregard for any form of reason: call Phelps insane and he will laugh. Call him stupid, however, and he will rage. Perhaps the reason why Phelps and has brood have pressed on so doggedly on the Snyder case is because Phelps will prove to everyone that he is not stupid: everyone will know him and listen, whereas nobody listens to an idiot.

The Snyder Case

While many people deem the upcoming Supreme Court case to be one of horrifically poor taste vs. freedom of speech, instead it can be argued that it is really a case that stretches the limits as to how much harm a person can inflict on another and still hide behind the premise of free speech. To the rest of the country, Phelps actions were even worse than what he had intended to do at Mathew Shepard's funeral - dance on his grave. Fred and his family posse fully intended to cause as much emotional harm and stress as possible to the Snyder family. 

This is where the claim of emotional vandalism comes in.

Every invitation to a funeral begins with the phrase "For those wishing to pay their respects..." The invitation is not open to those who want to desecrate the grave or to dance upon it. The funeral, therefore, is not simply open to the public as the Phelps family contends. In this case, the Snyder family paid for a respectful funeral, during which the bereaved would be comforted by the presence of friends, not enemies. The funeral and the proceedings were the property of the Snyder family. The Phelps family's intent was to mar the funeral proceedings by making entrance and exit from the funeral a fearsome, distasteful affair. They desecrated the funeral with malice aforethought. Emotional vandalism. Willful intent to damage or destroy another persons property.

So far, I haven't seen that particular angle to the prosecution, and since it has not been proffered, it cannot be introduced into this case. In my humble opinion, I fail to see why it should not have been. There must have been a reason why it was not.

The Responsibility of The Christian Right: Don't bet on it.

Although the case of Snyder vs. Phelps will not be heard before the Supreme Court until Wednesday, October 6, the prospects for Al Snyder look grim. Chief Justice Roberts on freedom of speech: "It's certainly the responsibility of the Supreme Court to uphold freedom of speech, even when it's unpopular." 

We must all brace ourselves for the imbecilic grins of the Phelps clan. 

We must also brace ourselves for the slightly muted cheers of our Rightwing Christian friends such as the Family Research Council, the American Family Association, the Southern Baptist Convention, and in particular, people like Tony Perkins, Bryan Fischer and Lou Engle. In addition, all those who say "we're not like Phelps" but who do absolutely nothing to chastise Phelps for his obviously un-Christian demeanor. These people, with all their righteousness at-the-ready, who bray and bloviate about morals and family values will not use one ounce of courage to tell the nation that Fred Phelps' free speech is not worthy to be heard by the dullest of the dull. This sector of our country has a moment to prove themselves to be worthy of their purported religion. They will, however, either cheer, whimper ... or remain silent.


Author's note: 
This article is based upon personal experience,,, and Exhibit A of  PETITION FOR DECLARATORY RELIEF (Pursuant to K.S.A. Chapter 60-1701 et. seq.) as requested by Jon Bell, June 2, 1994.)