Hatemonger Fred Phelps met his match in Harrisonville, Mo., when local people took a stand. By gathering in the thousands to line the route to the church where a soldier's funeral was being held, the people of Harrisonville and surrounding areas were able to keep Phelps out of earshot of mourners. Their actions demonstrate that the best antidote to hate speech is good speech by decent people exercising their First Amendment rights to honor the sacrifices of an American soldier and his family.
For years Phelps and his handful of followers, all seemingly related to him, from the Kansas-based Westboro Baptist Church have infamously demonstrated at funerals of soldiers killed in Iraq or Afghanistan with signs that read "Thank God for Dead Soldiers" and other despicable claims. They say that the death of soldiers is God's vengeance on the United States for its tolerance of homosexuality.
Phelps' antics have resulted in all sorts of legal push-back, including a case that is pending before the U.S. Supreme Court over the constitutionality of a civil lawsuit brought against Phelps by an aggrieved father of a dead soldier. But the First Amendment protects Phelps' speech, regardless of how noxious it is. A far better response is to use the First Amendment to defeat Phelps, such as the counterprotest organized by the people of Harrisonville. Due to their actions, Phelps did not have the opportunity to disturb the mourners at the funeral of Army Cpl. Jacob Carver, a soldier killed in Afghanistan on Nov. 13 in a suicide bomb attack.
The call went out on Facebook and in other ways that Carver's family needed protecting at this sensitive time. The result was an estimated 2,000 to 3,000 people who arrived in the early morning from all over — some taking the day off school or work — to create a human buffer for a half-mile leading to the entrance to Our Lady of Lourdes Catholic Church. When Phelps and his six fellow protesters drove up, there was no room. They were forced to stand a third of a mile away, among counterprotesters who drowned out their rants with a rendition of God Bless America. They left even before the funeral procession passed.
There will always be people like Phelps who seem to revel in causing misery to others. But, thankfully, there will always be many more people like those in Harrisonville, who, no matter their differences in faith, ethnicity or political ideology, came together for one of their own in a demonstration of the First Amendment as a force for good and sent Phelps and his crew of haters packing.